Mr. Chairman and fellow Committee members, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I am Cynthia Ewing, Senior Policy Analyst for the Children's Rights Council, a Washington, D.C. -based coalition of national affiliate organizations and 38 chapters in 29 states and Canada. Our organization represents more than 100,000 members. We have a prominent advisory panel consisting of leaders in government, academia, business, media, religion, medical and mental health professions, and the legal community.
With my CPA experience and my supporting career as CFO for several mid-size corporations, I have applied my financial expertise to the review and study of child support guidelines. I have reviewed state guidelines for reasonableness and equity and am fully aware of the disproportionate distribution of tax benefits related to child custody and support. I am currently serving on the Virginia Child Support Advisory Committee and recently completed service on a Virginia legislative study group reviewing child custody and visitation issues. Prior to residing in Virginia, I was actively involved with child support and other issues affecting children of divorced and separated parents in my former state of residence, Indiana.
Most of us recognize that the welfare system is broken, but we fail to recognize that the child support system is also broken. Over the past two decades, the Federal and state governments have spent billions of dollars on the huge, expensive, cumbersome and draconian child support bureaucracy. The trend has been to make child support awards higher and higher and to create tougher enforcement mechanisms for pursuing parents who do not and/or cannot pay those amounts. What have we accomplished since the Federal government created the child support enforcement system in the mid 1970s? The answer is basically nothing! Overall, there has been no improvement in the child support compliance rate in America over the past two decades. This fact should prompt us to step back and reevaluate the government's approach from a holistic perspective! We should ask ourselves the question:
The answer to this question is a definitive "yes" and I would like to provide this distinguished committee with four reasons why I believe this to be the case.
First, as a direct result of our country's archaic child custody laws, judicial practices and bureaucratic policies, millions of fit, loving, and dedicated parents have been literally pushed away from their children. The misguided notion that upon divorce or separation of their parents, children need only ONE parent, permeates our country's judiciary, legislative bodies and social service agencies. Because of this attitude, we typically assign complete ownership and control of these children to ONE parent - the custodial parent. We relegate the OTHER parent, regardless of his/her fitness or demonstrated history of responsibility, to the status of "visitor" and "non-custodian", whose primary function is to send money. The first disincentive to being a financially responsible parent is provided at the onset of this process. Stripping a parent of his/her parental rights, referring to him/her in denigrating terms, and treating him/her as only a financial resource is a highly effective DEMOTIVATOR! Congress must recognize that parental rights and responsibilities go hand in hand and that any policy it formulates or supports which diminishes the role of either parent will be counterproductive to its child support and child welfare initiatives.
Second, in order for a child support system to work, the levels of child support must be reasonable and based on the TRUE costs of raising children. In practice, the child support guidelines are none of the above. Child support guidelines must reflect the basic fact that it costs more to maintain two households than one. Excessive child support awards which force obligors to work 2 or 3 jobs in order to meet their support payment are NOT serving the best interests of our children. Parents caught in this trap simply do not have the time to parent, to provide the emotional support and guidance which our children desperately need. Excessive support awards which drive obligors themselves into poverty or homelessness are NOT serving the best interests of our children. While the media is quick to note that many custodial parents, primarily mothers, are living in poverty, they fail to report that the same may also apply to noncustodial parents. A University of Wisconsin study found that 58% of non-custodial parents are living below the poverty level. Congress must recognize the unfortunate fact that children of divorced or separated parents may never exist at the same standard of living they enjoyed as an intact family. Congress must accept that the overwhelming majority of children of unwed parents will likely be raised at a standard of living at or below the poverty level, regardless of the bureaucracy's success at collecting child support.
Third, there is the issue of accountability for child support. The simple fact that financial resources are being transferred from one parent to the other without any accounting of how this money is being spent is a disincentive. In many cases, it is blatantly obvious that so-called child support money is not being used for the benefit of the child. Just as there is a basic accountability requirement for anyone acting in a fiduciary capacity, there should be an accountability requirement placed on custodial parents for the use of the financial resources that are provided for the benefit of the child .
Fourth, there is the issue of the abilities of the parents to support their children and how government intrudes into the family based strictly upon the structure of that unit.
Please consider the following hypothetical, yet realistic, situation:
My point is this: As Congress reviews the various child support issues, including of course, the problems associated with support collection, it must keep in mind that a parent's ability to work, and thus his/her ability to support the children, is a critically important consideration and that this ability to support applies as much to divorced, separated or unwed parents as it does to parents in intact families. A number of studies, including at least one funded by the Federal government, have found that a parent's recent employment status and ability to pay is one of the most important predictors of noncompliance.
According to a GAO review of the Census Bureau data, 66 percent of noncompliance was reported by custodial mothers themselves as being because the fathers were unable to pay. However, noncustodial parents are not provided the AFDC-safety net as are custodial parents. If we define a "deadbeat" as a parent who does not contribute financially for one's child (whether willfully or not), we not only have "deadbeat dads" who are the ones that are degraded in the media, but a lot of "deadbeat moms", the ones that are on welfare. There is quite a disparate treatment of impoverished parents based upon either gender, who has won custody of the child, or who has been designated as the child support obliger.
When otherwise responsible and caring parents are forced away, denigrated and punished without cause, is it any wonder that the system is not working? But the current hysteria that we must go after so-called "dead-beat" parents with an unrelenting fervor appears to be fostered by the premise that "the number one problem facing our children today is POVERTY" and that successfully enforcing child support will eliminate poverty.
The media has bombarded us with the message that financial poverty is the root of all the problems our children face. Whether it is the "Kids Count Data Book" put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the Congressional report of the U.S. Cornmission on Interstate Child Support: "Supporting Our Children: A Blueprint for Reform", or "Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families" - the final report of the National Commission on Children, POVERTY is that great enemy of our children.
But is it really? Is poverty the social "disease" or is it simply the symptom of another social ill? Is "poverty" simply the "politically correct" excuse or posture taken by our political and social policy agencies because they refuse to admit that our government has created this epidemic of "at-risk" children with its irresponsible social agenda towards families?
In her 1993 Atlantic Monthly article - "Dan Quayle Was Right" - social researcher Barbara Defoe Whitehead concluded: "If we fail to come to terms with the relationship between the family structure and declining child well-being, then it will be increasingly difficult to improve children's life prospects, no matter how many new programs the federal government funds. Nor will we be able to make progress in bettering school performance or reducing crime or improving the quality of the nation's future work force - all domestic problems closely connected to family breakup. Worse, we may contribute to the problem by pursuing policies that actually increase family instability and breakup."
In my opinion, this is precisely what the government has done.
According to Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), "whatever social behavior government rewards and subsidizes, we end up with more of that behavior." Take our government's posture toward rewarding and encouraging the single-parent household, whether by divorce or unwed circumstances.
America's social condition had been steadily deteriorating over the past 30 years. The divorce rate and the percentage of children living in single-parent households has tripled since the 1 960s. Out-of-wedlock births have quadrupled. Frightfully, studies have shown that parents spend increasingly less time with their children than at any time in our history.
I submit that it is not financial poverty or child support deficiency that is the root of our children's problems. Rather, it is the fact that America is suffering from the greatest "PARENTING DEFICIT" in our nation's history. And our social policies continue to encourage this tragedy.
Many adults, particularly gender-feminists, have argued that all children need are one parent and money (child support, government give-aways, etc.) Yet the evidence simply does not bear this to be true.
A recent study in Michigan found that the "boat or refugee children" from the Far East, who had settled in America in the mid-80's and were attending public schools, are outproducing American children in the classroom - even though most of these refugee children live at or below poverty levels. The report concluded that "family structure, cultural values, parental involvement" - NOT ECONOMICS - led to healthy, successful, well-adjusted children.
Similarly, a study in Pennsylvania found that children from poor, intact, two-parent families performed better academically than financially well-to-do children from single- parent households.
Perhaps the most conclusive illustration of the negative relationship between family structure and the wellness of our nation's children may be found in a report entitled "Kids Count Data Book: State Profiles of Child Well-being" published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Social Policy. In the 'Kids Count' study, all states and the District of Columbia were ranked according to the well-being of their children, as measured by such parameters as child poverty, teen births, juvenile crime, high school graduation rates, violent deaths, etc. Although the report itself did not compare each state's overall rating in child wellness with the percentage of intact families in each state, such a comparison is easily derived. The states below are listed as to the percentage of "intact families" in each state (left column) and then the ranking by the "Kids Count Data Book" as to the state's child weliness (right column).
|Ranking by %
District of Columbia
The relationship between the percentage of "intact families" and child wellness which includes child poverty is abundantly clear. That is, no state which is high in percentage of intact families is low in child wellbeing, nor are states that are high in child wellbeing low in intact families. Even states that are extremely poor financially, but are high in the percentage of intact, two-parent families (such as West Virginia), find that their children are doing much better than more prosperous states (such as Florida, Georgia, Illinois) which have high percentages of single-parent households.
I am sure that the members of this Committee are aware that the studies show that children from two-parent households are far less likely to be involved with drugs and crime than children raised in single-parent households. This is not to condemn existing single parents who work hard to be the best parents they can, many of whom do a remarkably good job rearing their children. But the fact remains that studies show that children from single parent homes are more at risk of teenage pregnancy, poor academic performance, juvenile delinquency, suicide and violent crimes.
Despite these facts, our policies continue to discourage two-parent families. Some of the ways the government actively discourages the two-parent family are:
The child support concept that is supported by some who purport to represent women and children is that "MORE IS BETTER". These 'protectors' of women and children argue passionately and vehemently that a child just needs one parent and money. I would like to dispel this "more is better" myth. The Children's Rights Council has obtained data from the National Center for State Courts on the ranking of states by their average child support award. The findings of this research show that states with HIGH average child support awards were the same states ranked low in child wellness. The states with LOW average child support are the same states ranked high in child wellness. The most profound examples are the states of Indiana and New Hampshire. The average child support award in Indiana is twice the amount of the average child support award in New Hampshire. Yet New Hampshire is ranked NUMBER ONE (#1 ) in child wellness, while Indiana is ranked 29th in child wellness. If child support were the key, Indiana would be #1 instead of 29th.
High child support awards appear to reward or encourage the "single-parent" household. States with low child support awards are high in two-parent, intact families and high in child wellness. Whereas, states with high child support awards are low in two-parent, intact families and low in child wellness.
When we financially reward divorce and unwed pregnancies, we foster more of that behavior.
We need to reverse the trend and we need to stop calling for more destructive socialistic programs such as welfare, AFDC, food stamps, child support, child support assurance, etc., which only increase the stakes and assure that we will have more divorces, more single-parent households, more unwed births. We need social policies that promote family formation and parent-child relationships.
America's children are being harmed by a deficit. But this is not a financial deficit. Poverty is NOT the problem, and money is NOT the solution. For the real deficit harming and killing our children is an EMOTIONAL deficit, caused by removing and denying emotional resources due our children. For our children's generation is the least loved, least nurtured, least parented generation ever.
Our government has a choice. It can remain on the same path and continue the antitwo-parent family and anti- parent-child policies while at the same time tightening the child support enforcement screws or it can look at different pro-family approaches. If the choice is to continue as is, maybe in another 25 years we will be in the same position as we are today or perhaps our social condition will deteriorate even further.
This is the message that was heard last November and that message strongly applies to America's child support system.
I Would like to make the following specific recommendations as a beginning for improvement of the current child support system. There is not going to be any recommendation that will be a panacea. But, we need to start taking steps in the right direction:
1. Provide block grants to the states.
Right now, there is a Federal mandate to the states for child support enforcement that is very detailed and specific. We suggest you consider turning child support into block grants for the states. This would allow greater flexibility for new initiatives by the states.
2. Provide for more access/visitation grants as a more cost-effective tool for assuring child support compliance and parental responsibility.
Federally funded researcher, Sanford Braver, Ph.D., Arizona State University, finds that the involvement in the child's life by a parent is the single most powerful indicator of the amount of child support that is paid. Federally funded researcher, Jessica Pearson of Denver, Colorado, finds that jurisdictions that provide outreach programs to noncustodial parents also show higher child support compliance, greater satisfaction by parents, and less court time -- all of which serve to help children emotionally and financially. The Federally funded $350,000 lowa Access Demonstration grant is showing that access counselling to non-custodial parents provides for higher child support compliance.
There should be more funds for access counselling, mediation, and other informal methods of resolving custody and access/visitation disputes. This can be paid for out of existing child support enforcement funds, or by charging a reasonable user fee to parents.
3. Provide Parenting Education.
Both Democrats and Republicans support the idea of parenting education. Two to four hours of parenting education can help prepare parents for marriage, keep many marriages together, and help parents focus on their children in the event of separation. Let parents pay $25 or $50 towards their parenting education.
Elizabeth Hickey is the creator and director of Utah's first-in-the-nation mandatory parenting education program for separating parents. Elizabeth Hickey is national director of parenting education for the Children's Rights Council. The judges in Utah mandate parenting education for separating parents in Utah because they find it effective in reducing tension between parents, encouraging parental satisfaction and keeping parents out of courts. Connecticut and other states are jumping on the band wagon and mandating workshops for separating parents.
4. Remove the term "absent parent" from the Social Security Act.
In 1935, when the act was passed, it was for the purpose of addressing families where men were lost at sea or killed in mine accidents. Sixty years later, this antiquated title still exists and is applied to noncustodial parents. The mere fact that a parent is involuntarily designated a noncustodial parent by the system, does not make that parent "absent". Parents should be treated as human beings and as PARENTS, whether they win or lose the custody battle!
5. Order the Justice Department to uphold parents' constitutional and liberty rights to the care and control of their children.
On a daily basis throughout the country. under the "winner-take-all" custodial system, the courts interfere with rights of children to have the care and companionship of both parents. This is a violation of individual liberty interests and constitutional rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has on several occasions emphasized the importance of protecting the bond between parent and child, noting in one case that "the companionship, care, custody and management of his or her children" is an interest "far more precious" than any property right. By protecting a child's right to BOTH parents, custody battles will diminish thereby preserving the emotional and financial resources of the families.