Money has a way of generating considerable controversy between those who have it and want to keep it and those who don't have it and want to get it. So it is no wonder that guidelines about child support awards -- which have been put into place in most states this month -- are prompting lively debate about what standard of living a child should aspire to once his parents divorce.
At the nerve center of this debate is how much noncustodial parents -- usually the fathers -- should be required to pay the custodial parents -- usually the mothers -- at a time when they usually can't stand each other.
For decades, these decisions were usually left up to judges and they did, by and large, an abysmal job. Sometimes they awarded the custodial parents too much money, beggaring the fathers, but much more often they awarded far too little and then did not enforce the awards, beggaring the mothers and children. Studies have shown that 87 percent of the children on welfare rolls are there because of insufficient child support.
The situation became scandalous and costly enough to taxpayers that Congress passed the 1984 child support enforcement law that required each state to set up guidelines for judges to use in setting child support awards. The guidelines were supposed to achieve uniformity and to raise the level of the awards. Congress left it up to each state to devise its own guidelines and gave them nearly three years to do it. All but five met the Oct. 1 deadline, the exceptions being Maryland, Virginia, Idaho, New Mexico and New Hampshire, according to Diane Dodson, counsel for family law and policy of the Women's Legal Defense Fund.
The formulas vary considerably. Massachusetts, she says, assumes the noncustodial parent should pay 25 percent of his gross income in support for the first child. Texas, on the other hand, assumes he should pay 19 percent of his net income for one child. Some states have developed guidelines that provide for lower percentages of the income as the income goes up. States that have followed this course include Colorado, New Jersey and South Carolina. The District's formula takes into account the number and ages of the children, the income of the custodial parent, her child-care payments, and the income of the noncustodial parent up to a maximum of $75,000 of the gross.
The controversy has arisen over the amount of money the children are entitled to when the fathers have money. "What we hear again and again from fathers' groups is this is hidden alimony, we shouldn't have to pay anymore than what the child is going to eat or wear," says Dodson. Carl Friedman of Arlington, writing a letter to the editor in Monday's Washington Post, put it this way: "Children do not eat twice as much food when their parents' income doubles, nor do they normally buy twice as much clothing merely because their parents are earning more money." He favors support standards that are based "solely on the actual cost of raising children."
That misses the point of what children are entitled to, entirely.
Children, in a divorce, are in all probability going to have their standard of living eroded, but the socially desirable course is to have their lives and standard of living altered as little as possible. They are entitled to have their fortunes rise and fall with their parents, just as they would had the family remained intact. This means that if the father loses his job, they are going to have less and if the father has a big score they ought to have more. This might put them in a nicer house, or a newer car, or private schools and it could mean filet mignon on Friday nights instead of hamburgers. Children do not cost a fixed amount. They cost what a family can afford, and they are entitled to that, whether the father lives with them or not.
The problem, of course, is that fathers who might be very willing to give generously of their good fortune to their children are probably going to be much less willing to share with their former wives. That's understandable. Unfortunately, it is impractical to have her live in the doghouse while the children enjoy the main house and a standard of living comparable to their father's.
What makes this a little fairer is that the guidelines make no provision for the many hours the custodial parents spend each week on the caring and raising the children, usually on top of a full-time job. She contributes money and uncompensated time and, as Dodson put it, "if her life style benefits from some of these monetary benefits coming in, there's nothing wrong with that."
Nothing at all.