In April I had an opinion piece published in the New York Times Room for Debate Column about how I think poor, non-custodial parents should have to pay child support. Interestingly, this suggestion was met with hostility by many commenters who felt my opinion is draconian. Since when did supporting your children become overly punitive?
As a single mother who began her journey as a parent on welfare, I can say with confidence that financial contributions make a difference in a child’s wellbeing.
Because the father of my oldest child (now eighteen) opted to avoid paying child support for most of my daughter’s life, I had to rely on government assistance in order to make ends meet. Had her father helped support her, the need for this would have been reduced or eliminated. Even if he were not able to earn more than minimum wage, a modest contribution would have helped.
When my daughter was a baby, I knew that I wanted to be able to provide for her better than I was able to at the time. So I eventually returned to college, thanks to the help of the Educational Opportunities Program, and graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Sciences when my daughter was five years old. My goal then was to work in the social service field. I’d been employed in domestic violence shelters on a part-time basis and completed (unpaid and work study) internships at social service agencies. After graduation I obtained a job as a Family Advocate for Head Start.
I now have a master’s degree in Social Work and am a content manager in a different Head Start program. I’ve worked in Head Start for twelve years, and during that time have served thousands of children raised in families with low-incomes. I know that my story might be somewhat unusual, but it is not unique. Many single parents (both mothers and fathers) raise children without the assistance, financial or otherwise, from the child’s other biological parent. That’s just the way it is.
For some reason, there currently seems to be a movement towards feeling sorry for non-custodial parents who do not pay child support -- as though they are victims and the single, custodial parents are somehow oppressors. This story about renowned sociologist Kathryn Edin is a perfect example.
In the arguments against the current child support system, critics say that it is too harsh and that low-income fathers simply aren’t able to contribute financially. But what about when the mothers have little to no income plus the burden of caring for the children full time while looking for work?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that just because something is hard to do doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Having a child when you have little money is enormously challenging. But it is not impossible. The fact is, even if you have two parents and ample financial resources, parenting is still one of the most difficult endeavors a person can take part in.
Wealthy people like to say that poor people should not have kids. That it would be the end of the problem. However, just because one is poor doesn’t mean they aren’t human -- that we don’t experience love, hope or desire, just like everyone else.
The other thing that often comes into play is that those who have not experienced poverty often assume that those who do will remain there forever. This is true in some cases, but many people who are poor do not remain in there forever.
Another assumption often made about custodial single mothers is that they will not let the absent father see their child. In some cases this might be true, but when it is, it’s more likely because she fears for her child’s wellbeing. Most single parents would welcome kind, loving assistance in the job of raising children. Few poor single mothers become pregnant without the active involvement of a male partner. And that partner should be as willing as she is to help raise their child.
When my daughter was eleven I married a single father who also had one child, like me. We’d both been through rough relationships in the past and that was one of the things that brought us together. At the time, the man who I would go on to marry had a good full time job and a work permit (he was not born in the United States). He paid his child support obligation for his son, and also was active in caring for him.
As our families merged, circumstances changed. We applied for my husband to become a Lawful Permanent Resident. When his application was denied a couple of years later due to a felony conviction on his record, his work permit was also terminated. He lost his job two weeks after we purchased our first home.
My husband applied to have his child support order reduced. During the six month wait for a hearing, back due support accrued.
After the modification hearing, his obligation was reduced to $50 a month, which I paid. When we filed our joint tax return, it was garnished to pay the child support toward his son, even though I was the one who earned the money. I was not overly excited about that, being as I was carrying the weight of my own two children and struggling to make ends meet. But it was the right thing to do, even if it was hard. We also had my stepson over almost every weekend and every school break.
My husband ended up leaving me after five years of marriage so I am a single mom again. I get by with my day job, freelancing, credit cards, and modest child support from my ex-husband, who still contributes to his son’s well-being. It may not be much by some people’s standards, but the fact is that he has found a way to be both physically and financially involved in his both of his son’s lives -- which is the right thing to do.
I don’t think poverty or financial hardship is a reason to give up on providing for your kids. While the study by Kathryn Edin linked above states that many fathers say they love their kids, actions speak much louder than words. It is easy to talk about how much you love someone, but it takes more effort to demonstrate love day in and day out. As they say, talk is cheap.