By: Robert Locke
Monday, July 02, 2001
EVERYBODY HATES DEADBEAT DADS. They are excoriated from the feminist Left to the family values Right. This has resulted in a national frenzy of efforts to tighten up child support enforcement, beginning with the Child Support Enforcement Act of 1975 (amended in 1984) and including numerous state statutes. Unfortunately, as a new book persuasively argues, they are largely a myth. In fact, they are frequently victims in their own right. Dr. Braver began his research intending only to refine the received wisdom, but his empirical findings changed his own mind. The prevalence of the myths he has exploded raises serious questions about the entire structure of liberal social science, on which our nation's public policies are based, and the susceptibility of statistics to manipulation by liberal academics.
Dr. Braver refutes six key anti father myths everyone. He writes:
"1. Divorced dads are not overwhelmingly deadbeats in terms of child support compliance. They actually pay far better than assumed, especially if they remain fully employed."
The horrifying figures for nonpayment of child support that are usually quoted are wrong for a number of reasons. First, they are based solely on maternal reporting. Second, they are based on lumping together divorcees with never marrieds, who pay at a lower rate. Third, some studies of the problem record only payments made through court clerks, not all payments. Fourth, most of the remaining deadbeats are in jail, unemployed, in poverty, or otherwise unable to pay for understandable reasons.
"2. Divorced dads are not overwhelmingly disappearing or runaway dads. Most continue a surprisingly high amount of contact with their children, and much of whatever disconnection does occur can be attributed directly to mothers impeding or interfering with visitation."
Myth holds that divorced men are generally uninterested in their children, a view that derives mainly from a single inaccurate study and from the pop culture stereotype of the divorced father with sports car and girlfriend in tow. But, in reality, roughly three quarters of divorced fathers who live in the same town as their children see them regularly, according to Dr. Braver's own research. And they would frequently see them even more often if it were not illegal for them to do so under the visitation rules to which they are legally subject. Not to mention maternal denial of these visitation privileges, which is a serious and underappreciated issue in its own right.
"3. Divorced fathers do not end up noticeably more economically advantaged by divorce than mothers... in the long run, many divorced mothers will surpass divorced fathers in economic well being. Divorced mothers and children do not disproportionately end up in poverty, and those few who do almost without exception would continue to be in that state whether or not their ex husbands paid full child support."
An entire feminist obsession, which many non feminists have been taken in by, has been erected upon the so called "feminization of poverty." This turns out to be a statistical mirage generated by biased studies. Those divorced mothers who end up in long term poverty turn out to be (surprise, surprise) those who were from poor backgrounds in the first place, even when they were married. In only 2% of divorces would full payment of alimony and child support lift a poor mother out of poverty who is now in it.
"4. Divorced fathers are not far better satisfied or advantaged in the negotiations leading to their divorce settlements. In fact, fathers are significantly disadvantaged and dissatisfied compared to mothers, who feel more in control of the settlement process than fathers."
A substantial feminist inspired mythology claims that because the judicial system is run mainly by men, it favors fathers at every step in the divorce process. Despite the fact that every major feminist demand (starting with abortion and running right down the list) has been passed by male dominated legislatures and courts, this men vs. women mythology is emotionally satisfying and therefore believed in. But in fact, the court system has a demonstrable maternalist bias in custody awards and other issues which can be traced in the history of legislation and court decisions.
"5. Divorced fathers are not more content and better emotionally adjusted after divorce than mothers. In fact, overwhelming evidence suggests that they are far more emotionally devastated by divorce than mothers. Only with respect to calming their anger more quickly than their ex spouse do fathers have an emotional advantage over mothers."
The myth holds that divorced dads don't have a care in the world, with the possible exception of their new, younger, girlfriends. In fact, they tend to be less well adjusted emotionally than their ex wives by standard measures of psychological well being. According to a 1985 USA Today poll believed to be valid, 85% of divorced women claim to be happier postdivorce, compared to only 58% of men. Divorced women still usually have their children; divorced men often end up with nothing, relationship wise.
"6. Fathers do not generally trigger the marriage's demise by abandoning their wives and families."
The myth holds that women are devotedly maternal while contemporary American men are too immature to "commit" enough to make their marriages work and are therefore responsible for most divorces. In fact, 2/3 of all divorces are initiated by the woman. And women tend to initiate divorces not because they are abused or otherwise objectively ill treated, but for emotional reasons like "my husband doesn't communicate with me."
Not only does Dr. Braver exonerate deadbeat dads, but he documents a number of ways in which post divorce custodial mothers misbehave. The big thing mothers do is deprive fathers of their lawful visitation rights. The courts are set up to take very seriously the enforcement of child support payments by fathers, but they assign little seriousness to the issue of visitation rights. Mothers in most jurisdictions can arbitrarily deny court ordered visitation rights without fear of sanction from police or the judicial system. It would seem that one appropriate reform is to enable fathers to withhold child support payments when visitation rights have not been honored.
Mothers routinely practice more subtle forms of aggression. Because they have custody of the children most of the time, they are well placed to poison their minds against their fathers. They are particularly prone to do this if they remarry and wish to "reprogram" the kids to accept their new spouse as their father. They also have a tendency to do it simply out of spite at their ex husband. Some mothers cynically exploit the police to falsely claim harassment or domestic violence to keep their ex husband away, a tactic that the law stupidly encourages in a number of ways. It seems that the maternal instinct may not always be the good thing it is usually depicted as, if it drives women to behave like enraged she bears and clutch their children at the expense of their fathers' legitimate rights.
So where did these myths come from, if untrue? Basically, our society developed a massive emotional desire to believe the worst of divorced fathers. Then social scientists, despite their pretensions to objectivity and hard statistics, lamely translated these biases into research findings. The negative stereotyping of divorced fathers that routinely appears would get people arrested by the PC police if it were applied to minorities, women, or any other category of person. Dr. Braver suggests that our society is experiencing a great deal of stress over the ongoing decay of the traditional family and needed to find a scapegoat. Deadbeat dads conveniently appealed as villains to both feminists and family values types, guaranteeing political support and ideological cover on both sides of the aisle. Conservatives also sought to cultivate respectability with the liberal bestowers of moral respectability by endorsing the liberal line (a classic case of the negative consequences of allowing the Left the moral high ground.) There was also an appeal to a pseudo scientific version of sociobiology, which claimed that it is the nature of males to seek polygamous or serial monogamous relationships because of an evolutionary incentive to spread their DNA around. This has been called the "Darwin made me do it" defense and raises obvious questions on its own that this is not the place for. Once again, truth was intimidated out of people by the sheer self assertion of liberals who arrogated to themselves the right to decide which ideas are "offensive." We have got to learn to simply ignore them, and to use their mistakes on issues like this one as a battering ram to destroy their credibility. Fortunately, and partly due to Dr. Braver's research, which was expressed in a Presidential commission in 1996, the political system is starting to recognize the necessity of fathers again. For example, more states are establishing joint custody as the norm.
But the most disturbing thing Dr. Braver shows has nothing to do with divorced families per se, but pertains to the shabby standards of social science research. This research, which forms the picture of society on which government policy is based, is conducted almost entirely by liberal academics, and yet is taken by legislatures and courts, not to mention the general public, as being simply objective truth. He documents in devastating detail the degree to which sloppy research standards have opened the door to liberal bias. Properly disciplined research has epistemological safeguards built in to protect it from the biases of the researchers. Naturally, this makes one wonder what other received truths of our society are myths generated by biased research.
Liberal social scientists have mangled their research on divorce in a number of ways. Here are a few:
1. Almost all studies have been based on what people report to be true, not on verified tax returns or bank statements.
2. This reporting hasn't even included the father most of the time.
3. One notorious study that claimed to show a 73% decrease in maternal incomes after divorce used income adjustment figures based on Labor Department raw data gathered in... 1961!
4. This same study also measured pretax income, not after tax, ignoring the fact that child support is taxfree. (There is also a tax credit for child care.) Head of household mothers are taxed at a lower rate than now single divorced fathers, and can claim their children as exemptions.
5. Divorced fathers spend substantial amounts of money on their children beyond simple child support. They spend significant undocumented amounts on visitation and buying necessities and other items for their children. They must maintain larger residences than they would without children visiting now and then. They bear most visitational transportation costs.
6. Divorced fathers are often ordered to pay for their children's medical insurance over and above child support. Not only do most studies not count this, some even falsely assume the mother is paying.
7. Divorced fathers and never married fathers behave very differently, the never marrieds being consistently worse in almost every way. Studies tend to lump them together.
8. Studies of the decline in maternal standard of living tend to ignore the fact that after divorce, mothers tend to upgrade their job skills and otherwise move up the economic ladder, as is the general pattern over time of the whole population.
9. In the reams of studies being done about divorced fathers, almost none of the studies ever asked these fathers why they were abandoning their children, which the received wisdom claimed they were doing. Naturally, if they had, they might have found there was no reason, because they weren't.
No one on the peer review committees that oversee the publication of this research in academic journals, or the giving of grants to fund it, ever blew the whistle on these errors. The system failed.
But it gets worse. Many of the bad figures and illogical analyses are from the Census Bureau reinforcing the view that, like the National Endowment for the Arts, the Census Bureau and its budget should be ruthlessly gutted as soon as possible to restrict it to the narrow duty prescribed to it by the Constitution and keep it from spouting liberal nonsense by collecting figures the Constitution does not authorize it to.
The second great intellectual villain of divorce mythology is one Prof. Lenore Weitzman of Harvard University. She was the author of an immensely influential 1985 study that claimed that after divorce, mothers experience a 73% drop in their standard of living and fathers a 42% rise. This study was the basis for several pieces of legislation. It turns out that her finding was based on a simple misprogramming of the computer analyzing the data which reveal that mothers end up with 73% of their former standard of living, (a 27% drop) not 73% less.
This was not an innocent "computer error." The computer did what it was supposed to do; the investigator mangled the result. The idea that vast policy changes can come from such incompetence is nothing less than mind boggling. This incident needs to be treated as the My Lai of academic social science, which needs to be dethroned from its privileged position in policy disputes. Dr. Braver, who investigated this error and gave Prof. Weitzman a chance to respond, documents her mendacity and evasive behavior throughout this episode, which ended in her admitting the charges against her, for which she has never been disciplined.
The Left has chased conservative social scientists who could have blown the whistle on these shenanigans out of the academy. When will people learn that having a conservative presence in academia really does matter? If there had been an adequate number of conservative sociologists in the academy, someone could have critiqued these figures when they came out and before they had the chance to mislead the public and influence policy. Frankly, it is time to start pruning government funding for sociological research, which always seems to just prove we need more government spending, and to start cutting back sociology departments at the universities.
Dr. Braver's Deadbeat Dads is thus probably the most important work of conservative social science in a decade, easily in a class with Charles Murray's Losing Ground