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How Do We Define A ‘Deadbeat Dad’?

In response to Pusha-T’s assertion that Drake is a deadbeat dad and has a fathered a child he does not acknowledge, claim or support — and that Pusha doesn’t “even hang with my friends who have child support issues” — the internet took the opportunity to cosign on his policy of making deadbeat parents persona non grata to get them to act right:

It sounds like a slam-dunk way to take a stand. The deadbeat dad is a scourge upon society, a loser who had no business breeding and who is too cheap, shitty or otherwise onto the next family or thrilling single life to give a shit. If we just make pariahs out of the deadbeat parents out there, they will soon realize they better pay that child support or else they won’t have the support of their friends and family. Losing their social network or otherwise good social standing might be exactly what’s needed to push these dregs to do the right thing and pony up.

Right? It’s not the worst idea. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily how shaming works. To say nothing of the fact that this image of the deadbeat is also a stereotype.

But first, what makes a deadbeat parent? Is it a parent who pays no support? What about the one who pays some? What about the one who can’t pay money but pays in other ways? Like most issues that intersect race, gender and class, it’s more complicated than it seems.

In January of 2018, the Census Bureau released their most recent statistics on custodial mothers and fathers, which is for the year 2015. A snapshot of their highlights from the report:

  • 13.6 million single parents in this country live with a child or children under 21, or one quarter of all the children under 21 in the country
  • Four out of five are single mothers
  • One out of five is a single father
  • When the custodial parent is the father, 60 percent of the time he’s a non-Hispanic white man who got custody, with only 15 percent of black fathers getting custody
  • One third of single parent households live in poverty
  • Half of all black children have a parent outside the household (that’s twice as many as white children)
  • Half of these single parents have an agreement for support in place, or 50.2 percent
  • Some 70 percent of all parents who have a custodial agreement in place for child support received “some” payments
  • Mothers are more likely than fathers to have an agreement in place
  • Less than half of those with agreements got the whole payment
  • About 40 percent of noncustodial parents provide the health insurance
  • Some 61 percent of custodial parents get non-cash support

So to recap, only half of these people get their full child support payment every month. But 70 percent get something. That means about 30 percent of noncustodial parents aren’t paying their whole child support, while about half of people pay the whole thing they’re supposed to.

Are mothers or fathers guiltier of not paying up? There are more deadbeat fathers than mothers because more women have custody than men. However, women actually are less likely to make the payment to the father when the father has custody.

While 43.5 percent of custodial fathers received none of the ordered child support from noncustodial mothers, only 28.8 percent of custodial mothers did not get any child support from dads who owed it. Mothers are more likely to get the full payment too, at 44.9 percent, compared to 35.5 percent of custodial fathers.

This makes sense, because women are paid less, and they are more likely to be in poverty, meaning it’s harder for them to pay anything at all. So more women are sitting around without getting their child support than men. And those women are more in need than the custodial fathers who don’t get their support. The fathers who didn’t get their support earned a mean income of $73,308 in 2015, compared to the women who didn’t get theirs, who only made $58,036.

There’s no real defense of not paying support by either party, of course, but there are explaining factors. One of them is that the folks who don’t pay support often do pay in other ways. Some 61 percent pay at least one type of other non-cash support for the child, in descending order:

  • Birthday gifts or holiday gifts (57.7 percent)
  • Clothes, diapers and shoes (45 percent)
  • Food or groceries (33.1 percent)
  • Medical expenses (20 percent)
  • Childcare or summer camp (12.5 percent)

When we find out the reasons for nonpayment, they are as follows:

  • The other parent(s) provided what he or she could for support (38.8 percent)
  • They did not feel the need to have a legal agreement (38 percent)
  • That they thought the other parent(s) could not afford to pay child support (33.7 percent)

Some 20 percent who had no agreement in place at all for support said they did so to simply avoid all contact with the other parent. That’s important — visitation is a significant aspect of who pays child support, and even though support is legally required when ordered regardless of custody or visitation, it’s clear the two are linked in the mind of the parent.

In an independent study of low-income, inner city deadbeat dads, researchers found that fathers who can never see their kids gave about half as much support, compared with those who even saw their kids just 10 hours a month, Time reported. In lieu of support, the deadbeats who paid nothing on the books still gave about $60 a month in other goods.

“The most disadvantaged dads end up looking like they’re completely distanced from their kids but they’re actually giving quite a lot,” study author and sociologist Kathryn Edin, at Johns Hopkins, told Time of the research. The stuff they do give is not thoughtless, either — it’s meaningful to the child, and helps them bond, she said.

“We need to respect what these guys are doing, linking love and provision in a way that’s meaningful to the child,” Edin said. “The child support system weakens the child/father bond by separating the act of love from the act of providing.”

But it makes sense why the courts separate the two: You pay the support you owe based on your salary and the time spent with the child. But whether or not you have custody is actually irrelevant to the support being legally owed. In other words, not having any custody or visitation doesn’t mean you won’t be legally on the hook to pay child support. The court rightly considers it both parents responsibility to financially support their spawn. What’s more, technically visitation is actually considered the child’s right, not the parent’s.

That said, if you can’t pay your child support, you shouldn’t just ditch or sheepishly show up with a birthday present when the kid needs cereal, dental care, or a new backpack. You should immediately seek a modification from the court that demonstrates why you are unable to pay to work toward an amount you can. Otherwise, you’re going to get your wages garnished or possible jail time. Leaving the state to avoid paying support is a felony. Australia has taken to catching deadbeat dads at the airport and forced them to pay up or stay off the plane.

That all works if you can locate them, which is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not like there’s some national deadbeats list, but now some states publish lists of their most wanted delinquent parents. Here’s one from Indiana. And Texas. And Louisiana. And Illinois.

And what’s more, it’s hard to parse the co-parenting situation on an individual basis and how that plays out. I’ve known of a few instances where the deadbeat dads can’t be located, even when the custodial mother provided a known address and place of employment. I’ve also known of custodial mothers who won’t reveal their address or location after a split, making it impossible to send money even if the father wanted to. There are also real instances of parental alienation, where custodial parents wage war on each other through manipulating visitation, denying access, and otherwise weaponizing children because they’re mad about the relationship ending, and are using the only leverage they have. Sometimes, this leaves parents in the position of never seeing a child they’re forced to pay for, even when the courts had agreed the child should see the parent in question.

None of this is an excuse for not paying either, because the children, as always, suffer most. But the parental bond is something that should be preserved as much as possible, too. Still, we should caution against painting all nonpayment with one broad stroke unless we understand the factors at hand.

The research on shaming suggests it’s a bit more nuanced than it seems, too. Shaming and ostracizing can work two ways: it can make people go into hiding and withdraw from society to save face or it can motivate people to make amends and do the right thing. The reason for choosing one option over the other depends mostly on whether or not the person is able to do the thing to restore their good standing. If they can’t, or it’s too difficult, they are more likely to simply withdraw.

This is important with regard to deadbeats, because we often assume they won’t give when sometimes it’s that they can’t. That’s the result of a complex system that in spite of always advocating for the best interests of the child, doesn’t often do anything to ensure the best relationship between the parents so that both can meet their obligations and maintain the bond. Which is why some family law experts argue that improving the relationship between fathers and mothers is the key to making child support a better system.

We can’t do that by just shunning people who can’t or won’t pay. Rather, we should try to understand that there are categories of deadbeats: people who won’t pay out of spite or negligence, people who pay what they can, and people who can’t pay but want to be involved. It all probably hinges as much on ability to pay as it does on the relationship between the parents, as well as other individual circumstances. But that’s a lot more complicated than simply unsubscribing.