Child Support Statistics Stories Misleading - Sunday, October 22, 2000 BY KATHLEEN PARKER, TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES
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 last week upon reading three 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 new Census Bureau report released 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 United States 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 girlfriend, 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, N.J.)
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.
With the mandate to grab readers' attention, one can sympathize with headline writers. Even with a grabby headline, most readers wouldn't get far beyond the first paragraph. Played against terrorist
attacks and a presidential race, a child-support story is interesting only to those looking for checks. Or to men tired of stories that feed the impression that divorced dads are all deadbeats.
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 to 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 thatdeadbeat 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 while redistributing blame helps little, fairness demands consideration of an alternate spin and possible headline: "Deadbeat moms leave dads, kids scrambling for food."
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 child support.
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 true.