Tough child support laws deter single men from becoming dads

Researchers studying the factors behind out-of-wedlock births have found a significant variable that often is overlooked: child support.

States that are strict in enforcing child support have up to 20 percent fewer unmarried births than states that are lax about getting unmarried dads to pay, the researchers found.

"The better the enforcement of child support, the more the cost of childbearing shifts from unmarried women to their partners," said lead author Robert Plotnick, a professor at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs. "This may make men more reluctant to become unwed fathers."

To document the link, Plotnick and three other social scientists teamed up to compare the toughness of each state's child support enforcement to the chances that women living in that state had out-of-wedlock births. Using a national sample of 5,195 women of childbearing age, they found a significant correlation between tougher enforcement and less chance of having unmarried births.

Since children of single parents run a higher risk of poverty and other social ills, policymakers have sought to stem the tide of unmarried births, only to see the rate rise from well under 10 percent of births in the 1960s to roughly a third of all U.S. births today.

Study co-author Irwin Garfinkel of Columbia University said most programs to discourage single parenthood -- such as restrictions on welfare benefits -- focus on the mothers.

"Decisions about sexual intercourse and marriage involve two people," Garfinkel said. "But research and policy debates have largely failed to recognize men's role in childbearing and how government policies may influence their behavior."

Plotnick, Garfinkel, and co-authors Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and Inhoe Ku of Seoul National University in South Korea theorized that forcing unmarried fathers to support their children financially might deter them from letting a pregnancy

Contact: Steven Goldsmith
University of Washington

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