Child Support In the African American Community: Exposing the Elephant In the Room! An Organic and Systemic Examination of Child Support As a Model and a Responsibility in Black America.
by Rick Wallace, Ph.D., Psy.D. |Courtesy of The Odyssey Project
Child Support In the African American Community ~ When my wife, Marion, told me that she had shot a couple of videos on the controversial topic of child support in the Black community, I knew that it would set off a powder keg of emotions, or people would shy away from it altogether. I believe that one of the reasons that this topic is so controversial is that there are two primary angles from which to view it — the organic and the systemic.
The organic element of men (or women) supporting their progeny is of great concern. It is crucial to elucidate the fact that the problem with men financially supporting their children is not a racially exclusive phenomenon. However, the financial repercussions are uniquely different. The videos that Marion made were not to address the systemic failures of the child support system, but the organic and social shortcomings of the community to ensure that our children are appropriately cared for.
Marion is speaking to the need for parents to be mature in their dealings with one another, ensuring the children are okay. Far too often, children get caught in the emotional crossfire of parents who are still waging emotional warfare because of their bruised egos and fragile hearts. Children are used as pawns and leverage and end up suffering due to a situation that they did not create.
I have to say that I am immensely proud of my wife for having the courage to use her voice to tackle unpopular topics. It is in the trenches where the war will be won. I believe that one reason that the response to the videos has not been prolific is we don’t like the idea of accountability. We prefer the role of the victim, where we can blame someone else for our current situation. My wife is big on accountability. Her penchant for accountability means that she rarely appeals to those who have an aversion to responsibility.
There is another reason that this topic does not resonate with many. The negative experiences associated with dealing with the systemic issues in the child support system has left a bad taste in the mouths of noncustodial parents.
If we are going to create a resolution to this issue of child support, we must be willing to confront problematic areas of concern.
There are multitudinous problems with the modern child support system. I will briefly introduce a few of the more glaring issues.
The System Is Outdated
When the current child support system was initially introduced, it was done as a bipartisan policy reform designed to serve divorced parents who were steadily employed. The system was introduced more than 40 years ago and based on outdated stereotypes of the modern family, where mom was a housewife and dad the sole provider. When these new policies were introduced in 1975, no-fault divorces had just been allowed, and the divorce rate was taking off. According to Johns Hopkins University sociologist Kathryn Edin, the traditional roles of mothers and fathers have changed dramatically since the 1970s. However, laws and policies are still stuck in the past. Basically, we have a 1970s narrative about a 2020 reality.
The System Makes it Particularly Tough on Low-Income Fathers
According to government statistics, 29 percent of families in the child support system live below the federal poverty line. Based on surveys and studies, many fathers want to do right by their children financially, but simply do not have the means by which to do so. That becomes a very slippery slope for these fathers, which I will discuss in my conclusion.
Delinquency in child support payments often creates another issue that negatively impacts the children — parental alienation. There is empirical and pragmatic data that shows men with outstanding child support debt tend to be less involved in other areas of their children’s lives. It is not uncommon to find some who are incarcerated because of the unpaid debt.
Many states consider incarceration as voluntary unemployment, meaning that child support debt and interest continue to accrue even while men are in prison. It is not hard to see why this can be such a difficult cycle to break.
The Deadbeat Dad Myth
There is another infamous stereotype that fuels many of the problems in the current child support system — the myth of the deadbeat dad.
In 1986, CBS produced a report entitled “The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America. This report featured a father of six in New Jersey who literally bragged about not supporting his children financially. As you can imagine, the report sparked national outrage across the country, leading to even stricter child support laws.
Not long after that report aired, Congress passed a law that forced states to adopt stricter child support enforcement laws — a trend that continued well into the ‘90s. President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform act gave the Government even greater power to enforce child support collection against noncustodial parents.
Allow me to create a moment of elucidation here. To the average person creating stricter child support enforcement laws makes perfectly good sense. While fathers who skip out on their responsibility to financially support their children should not be ignored, current research data suggests that the “deadbeat dad” is probably more of an outlier than the status quo. The current system does not distinguish between those who cannot and those who refuse to.
In 2013, Katheryn Edin and Timothy Nelson coauthored “Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City. The authors conducted more than 100 interviews with low-income fathers in the Philadelphia area over seven years. They discovered the majority of these men were exhilarated to be fathers, despite the financial challenges it created. Many of them were willing to find additional ways to produce the necessary income to support their progeny. These men were also very involved in the emotional support of their children.
Edin’s study works hand-in-hand with other research that suggests economic support, while necessary, is hardly enough to qualify one as a good parent.
The Fixation on Enforcement While Ignoring Involvement
The most glaring problem I have uncovered during my 15-year study of the current child support system is that there is far too much emphasis on enforcement and not enough focus on getting fathers involved in their children’s lives.
For example, the Federal Parent Locator Service uses a national database to track down noncustodial parents to enforce payments. In 2013 alone, $32 billion of child support was collected — a number that steadily rises with each passing year. The Government has proven to be highly efficient in the collection of child support; however, there is a significant deficiency when it comes to child custody and visitation statutes and policies.
The National Parents Organization recently released its Shared Parenting Report Card, grading every state on child custody statutes, and how well they promote shared parenting following a separation or divorce. Almost across the board, states scored a cumulative 1.63 grade point average (on a 4.0 scale).
There is a wealth of empirical data that reveals that shared parenting can help offset the negative impact of divorce. However, minimal effort is invested in creating these shared parenting environments. There is no question that financial support by the noncustodial parent is essential; however, the data suggests that it is more essential to have quality time with both parents.
It should go without saying that noncustodial parents should provide financial support for their children. What has to be understood here is that financial support alone will not provide the children with everything they need to be well-rounded and highly effective adults. Some of the focus has to be shifted from enforcement to involvement. Involvement fuels and facilitates a desire to do right by our children. We cannot continue to underestimate connectivity as it pertains to parenting. Black men, specifically, have been commodified — being judged solely on what they are able to do financially. The commodification of Black men leads to their marginalization in many other areas, including one-on-one quality time with their children.
The point that my wife, Marion, is making in these videos is that we, as a race of people, should be focusing on organic solutions. We should not need an antiquated government system to regulate how we provide for our children when our relationships dissolve. We should be giving more gravity to the importance of choosing the right mates.
Let’s be clear here. Noncustodial parents have a completely different view of the child support system than custodial parents. Custodial parents don’t have to pay a dime for representation in the system; they are provided with an advocate. The system still views the noncustodial parent through the lens of the “deadbeat dad” myth. There are no programs to facilitate involvement. There are few programs to help noncustodial parents secure living-wage jobs.
The idea of living-wage jobs as it pertains to Black noncustodial fathers is paramount because Black women outearn Black men on average. Black men are still the most unemployed and underemployed demographic in the United States.
Back to the point my wife is making here. One of the first things that we must do is make better choices when choosing our mates. Who we procreate with will have a massive impact on our ability to parent our progeny. We have reduced relationships to physical encounters that satisfy animalistic lusts. Unfortunately, our casual approach to mating has led to a dilemma in which parents become increasingly hostile toward one another to the point of using the children as pawns to settle scores.
Additionally, when you split a home, you split incomes and reduce the capacity to build wealth for the future. When a noncustodial parent has to distribute their income into multiple dwellings, it seriously interferes with their ability to become financially fluid. When a mother is left to provide and support a family, even with financial support from the father, it makes things more complicated and wears her thin.
The child support system is a joke, but that does not eradicate our responsibility to be sensible and responsive to our children’s needs. We should not have to be dependent on an antiquated system to facilitate our familial and parental responsibilities. It is time that we grow up and meet the challenge of adequately equipping our children to win. That means we will have to put down our narcissistic behavior and see the bigger picture. It is simple; our children need us. ~ Rick Wallace, Ph.D., Psy.D.
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