Should Deadbeat Dads go to Prison – No

At first blush, jail time for deadbeat dads seems like an appealing idea: a serious way to make the offender understand that he has failed a significant responsibility. What could possibly be more important in any man’s life than the next generation? Who could easily contemplate abandoning his own flesh and blood to poverty, even homelessness; a bad or poor education; bad teeth and bad health; and very likely a life of crime, as the child, with no paternal role model, no allowance, no resources, and no hope, discovers how much easier it is to aid and abet the drug dealers, pimps or prostitutes, thieves, mobsters, and worse of this world?

Non-payment of child support is a significant problem in the United States. One estimate is that the nation’s children of “deadbeat” fathers suffer to the tune of approximately $100 BILLION each year. When child support is not paid, the overwhelming majority of children live in poverty and because their mothers must usually work two or more jobs, they are neglected as well.

But the term “deadbeat dad” is unfair. Yes, a few fathers DO intentionally damage their children’s futures because of some grievance against their ex-wives, their exes’ attorneys, or “the system” – maybe even as much as 5 percent. But what about a man who has cancer, a heart attack (or two), a stroke, or even an accident that makes him unable to work for a few months; loses his job; becomes homeless; and because he is so far behind in his child support loses his driver’s and other licenses? How is a man with bad health, no home, no job, no driver’s license, no license to work as an electrician, plumber, doctor, lawyer, fisher, or whatever; and a huge debt supposed to come up with, say, $30,000 per year to support his children? Oh, no, make that $50,000 a year to also pay lawyer’s fees, court costs, fines, and of course interest rates.

More than two-thirds of all so-called “deadbeat” dads have jobs that are at or below the poverty rate, meaning around $11,200 for a single dad, or around $21,800 for a man with an ex-wife and two children to support. Less than 4 (FOUR) percent earn more than $40,000 a year. It costs a minimum of $15,000 per year, on average, to rear one child to adulthood, and this does NOT include little details like pediatric well-care, orthodontists, swimming lessons, music lessons, summer camp, or clothing bought from some other store than Good Will.

What happens next? The United States already incarcerates more people as a percentage of its population than any other nation in the world; thanks to privatization, most prisoners are significantly underserved and overcrowded. It costs a lot of money to feed, house, and guard inmates and to take care of their health. In 2003, well before the Great Recession began, it cost an average of $22,000 per year to keep one criminal behind bars.  This number does NOT include the huge cost of the salaries of an army of government employees whose only job is to track down “deadbeat” dads or make them an issue in a political campaign, not to mention the cops, the lawyers, the judges, and the loan sharks— sorry, the credit card companies. (With interest rates approaching 30 percent, there is little difference between the two. Thank you, Republican deregulators.)

Many states address the overcrowding problem by only imprisoning “deadbeat” dads on the weekends. No matter whether two days out of the week or seven, being behind bars  is humiliating, terrifying, and dangerous. With each imprisonment, a “deadbeat” dad’s chances of finding a job good enough to support himself AND meet his obligations gets tinier. With each imprisonment, the poor man’s debt swells ever huger.

Some judges use imprisonment or the threat of imprisonment to pry “hidden” money out of men. Surely their parents or their remaining friends might “chip in”! “Deadbeat” dads who have jobs already have child support withheld from their paychecks; employers are required to withhold by law. If they still cannot pay what they owe, it is probably because their jobs are too badly compensated. Or they have lost their jobs altogether.

And always remember the children. “What does your father do?” “Well, he broke his right arm at work. Then while he was recovering, he lost his job because he couldn’t use his right arm. He didn’t have any money to get food or housing for himself, much less pay child support, so they sent him to jail. Now no one will hire him because he’s an ex-con, so he has to spend every weekend in jail. He owes my mother hundreds of thousands of dollars that he has no hope of ever obtaining in any HONEST way. He’ll probably spend the rest of his life in and out of prison, either for nonpayment of child support or because he had to turn to a life of crime. He had no other options.” How proud such children must be of their fathers! How much hope for a “happily ever after” future such children must have!

The top priority of BOTH parents ought to be the health, welfare, education, and future of their children. Exactly how does it help a woman with four children and two minimum-wage jobs for the government to spend a minimum of $22,000 a year keeping her “deadbeat” ex-husband in prison for nonpayment of child support? Exactly how does it help children to know that either their fathers won’t pay what they owe (because their dads don’t love them), OR that their fathers CAN’T pay what they owe, because either they’re in jail or they’re ex-cons who can’t find jobs?

Wouldn’t it be better for the government to stop excusing people who make more than $250,000 a year from paying their fair share for roads, schools, interstate commerce, food inspection, and other necessities of a just society? Wouldn’t it be better for the government to make rich people pay the same taxes they were paying in 2000, and were still wealthy? Better yet, how about the same tax rates they stayed wealthy paying in 1980?

Wouldn’t it be better for the government to spend a minimum of $22,000 a year NOT on imprisoning “deadbeat” dads, but on innocent children’s school lunches and pediatricians? Wouldn’t it be better for the government to care most about the future of the nation: our children?