In a piece published at Salon this morning, Anna March argues giving men the option to deny child support will improve the economic conditions under which women are raising children. That claim might seem counter-intuitive, but the argument is entirely consistent with economic theory. The problem is, the way that people behave “in theory” is often quite different from the way they behave when faced with real life choices.
Under the current set of laws women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant with the child of a reluctant father have, essentially, three choices: they can choose to give birth and raise their child with the help of court enforced child support; they can relinquish parental rights at birth and allow the child to be adopted; or they can choose to terminate the pregnancy through abortion.
Anna March argues that having access to the first option, raising the child with the financial support of the father, encourages women to make poor choices that do not serve the best interest of either mother or child. And so by removing this option—by changing the laws that enforce child support—more women will make the second and third choices and fewer children will be born in to single mother households.
Put another way, access to child support creates bad economic incentives for women to keep children that they may want, but probably shouldn’t be having under their current circumstances.
The problem is, unexpected pregnancy is not necessarily a situation that every women will respond to with the cold-hearted rationality that is implied by this argument.
Many, many women will still have, and keep, their babies even if child support is not an option. Some will make this choice because they have faith that the child’s father will eventually contribute, even when he has given every indication that he will not. Some will make this choice because they believe that they can find provide sufficient income to raise their child alone, even when that expectation is not realistic. Some will make this choice because having an abortion or giving a child up for adoption is a lot easier to talk about than it is to actually do.
If we abandon the current child support laws then what will happen to the children of these women? Is the plan to use their poverty as a warning to other women to make what March calls “thoughtful choices about motherhood?”
I suspect the answer is that the state will support them, but you could make exactly the same argument about state support as you could about paternal support—in fact, if state support is reliable then replacing parental support with state support creates an even greater incentive for women to keep unexpected children.
Like Anna March, I have my own personal reasons for spending over a decade thinking about this issue and I have come to the conclusion that there is no easy answer. I have changed my mind several times as to whether or not my son’s father should be paying child support after he opted out of the family plan (well, the family he has with me at least). For me it has always come down to this one thing—the cost of child support for his father is small relative benefit the child support has afforded his son. That might not make it fair, but in my mind it does make it right.