Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2000/ 24 Tishrei, 5761
Headlines blur fiasco of family
POLITICIANS, pollsters and pundits know that spin is more
important than truth. Impression matters more than fact.
I was reminded of spin's critical role in public thought
the other day upon reading three different news stories on
the same topic. All three had vastly different headlines
and distinct spins, even though all three were based on
the same facts.
The subject was a Census Bureau report released
Friday about the status of child support payments.
Before you see the headlines, ask yourself what you
already know about child support in America. Based on
spin, my guess is you "know" that the U.S. is largely
populated with deadbeat dads, men who after divorce
shirk their parental duty and refuse to pay child support.
Your impression is that single moms are feeding the kids
Meow Mix while Cool Hand is blowing large bucks on
a new babe, or something like that.
In fact, deadbeats dads (and moms) do inhabit the
planet, though not in the numbers you might imagine, nor
for the reasons you've been led to believe. But first, the
headlines. Remember, same report, same day, three
different news sources:
Headline 1: "More mothers receive no child support."
(The Baltimore Sun)
Headline 2: "More parents getting full child support."
(The Record, Bergen, New Jersey)
Headline 3: "Study finds little change in child support."
(The Washington Times, Washington, D.C.)
Well, which is it? Anyone reading the whole story would
learn eventually that child support collection is
improving, though we still have a long way to go.
What the Census Bureau report showed was that 41
percent of all custodial parents received all the support
they were due in 1997 (the last year for which figures
were available), compared with 34 percent in 1993.
About 68 percent of custodial parents received at least
some child support in 1997.
These numbers are still depressingly low and, given the
assumption of maternal custody, seem to support the
impression that deadbeat dads remain a plague. While
even one neglectful dad is disturbing news, the buried
truth is that more non-custodial fathers than
non-custodial mothers pay child support.
The fine print of the same Census Bureau report shows
that custodial mothers received 60 percent of what was
due them; custodial fathers, by contrast, received only
48 percent of what they were due.
In other words, contrary to popular headlines, men
don't have a corner on the deadbeat market. And
although redistributing blame helps little, fairness
demands consideration of an alternate spin and possible
headline: "Deadbeat moms leave dads, kids scrambling
Factually, there are enough deadbeats of both sexes to
make us wish for a Bureau of Birth Control, but the
more important fact -- buried in all three stories -- is
that 83 percent of divorced parents who have joint
custody and regular contact with their children paid their
support in full. By comparison, only 36 percent of
parents with neither visitation nor joint custody paid any
Can anyone say "Bingo?" Too bad no one finds that
truth worth spinning. If they did, we might see headlines
like this: "Shared parenting after divorce eliminates need
for draconian confiscatory practices in child support
collection; children healthier, happier.
Ok, so it's not snappy, but it is attention-grabbing. And
in a world of saner divorces, it could be
JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.
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