By Robert Franklin, Esq.
Member National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
I don’t know whether to be touched or outraged. This article is so naïve it’s almost sweet in a perverse sort of way (Brookings, 12/9/15). At the same time, it was written by a scholar at the Brookings Institute, one of the leading think tanks in this country, so I’d expect it to exhibit some basic knowledge about its subject. (I uniformly refuse to write in all caps because I consider that a poor substitute for principled argument. But I promise you, the linked-to piece tests my resolve.)
The writer is Richard Reeves. He’s billed as the Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families. His thesis is this: Problem — single mothers are disproportionately poor; they do the lion’s share of childcare; that prevents them from working and earning; many non-resident fathers aren’t employed. Solution — have fathers provide childcare so mothers can work!
Lots of non-resident fathers are not gainfully employed; single mothers are struggling with childcare cost; and children, especially boys, are suffering from the distance or absence of their father. Here’s an idea: have the fathers look after their children, allowing mothers to get into and stay in work. The savings for the mother would far outweigh child support payments, which could be suspended when the father is providing childcare. What if, rather than squeezing these men for every last nickel, we were to ask them to do childcare instead?
Someone might tell Reeves that countless people all over the English-speaking world and far beyond have been arguing for exactly that for decades now. It’s called shared parenting. (I really wanted to use all caps, but stayed my hand.) When Mom gives up part of her parenting time while Dad cares for the kids, that’s shared parenting. We’ve been fighting for this day after day, year after year. British men dress up in superhero outfits and scale Buckingham Palace and other prominent structures to bring attention to the problem. People write articles and books. Organizations large and small submit bills to state and national legislatures. Study after study is conducted.
But Reeves knows none of this. “Here’s an idea…” No, Mr. Reeves, the idea isn’t new and it isn’t yours. There’s a thing called Google. Use it. Type in s-h-a-r-e-d p-a-r-e-n-t-i-n-g. See what you get. Or “equal parenting” or “fathers’ rights” or any similar search term. See? People have already thought of your idea.
And it’s a great idea. But it turns out that simply having a good idea hasn’t fixed things. On the contrary, what’s become obvious is that, even though all the arguments are on the side of shared parenting — good for kids, good for mothers, good for fathers, good for society generally, good for the public purse — they haven’t yet carried the day.
Oh, we’ve had our victories and more are to come. But what everyone knows who’s toiled in these mines is that being right isn’t enough. If it were, shared parenting would have become the norm years ago.
No, it turns out that there are forces arrayed against the movement for shared parenting that don’t much care about what’s right or what’s good for kids, mothers, fathers, etc. Family lawyers make up one group that’s reliably opposed to reform. Domestic violence groups almost uniformly oppose kids having real relationships with their fathers post-divorce. Child welfare agencies don’t like the idea either, as a 2006 study by the Urban Institute demonstrates along with ample anecdotal evidence.
Judges show no inclination to grant shared parenting despite the fact that it’s warranted in the vast majority of cases. (A Nebraska study two years ago found that less than 10% of divorce and custody cases even alleged domestic abuse, child abuse or parental unfitness.) And studies of judicial attitudes in the United States show that there is strong anti-father/pro-mother bias among those sitting on family court benches.
And how do mothers feel about trading Dad’s child support for his childcare? Well, when fathers seek shared parenting time beyond the meager amounts routinely handed out by family courts, they’re all but invariably opposed by their exes.
Plus, the fact that 70% of divorce actions are filed by women is almost entirely explained by the simple fact that they know they’ll get the kids. That was the finding of researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen over a decade ago. It’s hard to square that fact with the idea that mothers will eagerly give up their kids to the dads in order to go to work. If they were interested in doing so, they’d have written into the original court order. But they didn’t.
Then there’s the fact that the lack of child support may have little or nothing to do with custodial mothers’ relative lack of income. After all, Census Bureau data reveal that non-resident fathers are markedly more likely to pay child support in whole or in part, than are non-resident mothers. And non-resident mothers are barely half as likely to be ordered to pay support as are non-resident fathers. And yet custodial fathers earn over 50% more than do custodial mothers.
So there’s a real problem with the concept that, but for the burden of childcare, custodial mothers would be earning more. The simple fact is that, as countless studies demonstrate, on average, women earn less than men for two major reasons — they work fewer hours and they work at lower paying jobs. Change that behavior and the wage gap all but disappears, irrespective of child support.
On a different level altogether, there’s the fact that child support enforcement is a huge employer in every state and it’s all paid for by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. The OCSE pays $5 billion per year to states for child support enforcement. That goes to pay the salaries for armies of lawyers, special courts, court personnel, etc. I suppose Reeves believes that states will just happily give up all that money and all those jobs because “Here’s an idea…”
And if federal officials were really interested in fathers being involved in their children’s lives, wouldn’t the OCSE budget more than a paltry $10 million per year for fathers’ visitation enforcement? Yes, but they don’t. The simple fact is that neither state lawmakers, the U.S. Congress, state court judges nor the OCSE cares a lot about how much children get to see their dads. If they did, they’d do something to promote it. But again, they don’t.
Shared parenting is one of the best ideas going. With shared parenting as the norm post-divorce, a host of societal ills would be ameliorated. But there’s a whole range of forces against the concept that no “Here’s an idea…” is going to defeat. No, the only thing to do is to get down here in the mines and start swinging a pick along with the rest of us.