Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Wendy McElroy has an article on foxnews.com about so-called "deadbeat dads" that got the ol' synapses firing this morning.

It's good to see some cultural awareness building that the "deadbeat dad" problem is a problem of our own creating. I remember reading somewhere, don't remember where, that one of the reasons young men are hesitant to get married these days is the ease with which a woman can divorce a man and then stick him with huge child support obligations. She gets her trophy kid and a "get out of jail" card from the biggest consequence of behaving that way, which is poverty. She probably won't be rich, but she'll be OK, because the father will be footing the bill. And in the studies that have been done, the main reason the "deadbeat dad" doesn't pay is some combination of the fact that he's unemployed, sick, or otherwise unable to earn much of a living, and the fact that the mother is denying him visitation (a huge problem these days).

Now I know plenty of bum guys who cheated on their wives, etc. I'm not downplaying the male end of responsibility for this. But it should be blindingly obvious by now that the courts are heavily skewed to the mother in all custody issues regardless of her responsibility for the breakup in the first place. Women have almost no incentive today to patch up a troubled marriage. A real cynic might even suspect that the main reason for this skew is that single mothers are far more likely to end up wards of the state in some aspect or another, whether it's funded by the dad but mandated by the state, or directly funded by the state, or both. This is a simple matter of statistics, in case anyone thinks I'm being sexist or anything. I'm a big believer in Public Choice Theory, and I really wish more choice were, because it would teach us to look at the motivations of public officials, both elected and unelected, with a much more critical eye when examining public policy issues like this one.

So now the Bush administration is going to address the problem by throwing "deadbeat dads" in jail. What this is meant to accomplish, I've no idea, unless it's just safe publicity for Bush. Who's going to say a father shouldn't take care of his kids? But when you look into it a little bit more, you see it's a much more complicated problem than it appears at first blush. And Public Choice theory would teach us that officials are pursuing this policy because it serves their own personal interests, not primarily "for the kids" as they claim, a perspective that allows us to examine whether this approach actually does help the children at all. Here's another article about the issue.

Perhaps the most relevant question one could ask of the current system is, "does it encourage families to stay together, or to split up?" Because there's now a mountain of evidence that single parenthood, whether mother or father, is one of the main drivers of social dysfunction in America today.

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