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Sweden Backs Off U.S.-Style Child Support Reforms

Government Investigation Reveals Fundamental Flaws

Fathering Magazine, May 6, 2003, By Roger F. Gay

1975-2000 was an era of radical international child support reform, beginning in the United States. Swedish investigation into the effects of U.S.-style child support reform revealed the creation of massive debt and a high percent of fathers forced into poverty. A new government report suggests corrective action. The article below explains why we should not be surprised that Sweden was among the last to fall to radical child support reform arguments and the first to begin the process of restoration; while the U.S. record of reform is an ongoing embarrassment.

In 1975, a federal office of child support enforcement was created within the Department of Health and Human Services. This was a rather dramatic development in the United States. Child support is a state issue (just as it is in the European Union). The new office was brought into being by an amendment to more popular social services legislation. When signing the bill into law, President Ford stated that the amendment took the federal government too far into domestic relations and promised to suggest corrective legislation. Gerald Ford was not re-elected in 1976. (He pardoned Nixon.) As with many bureaucratic organizations, the Office of Child Support Enforcement became its own best lobbyist, and began the process of empire building; accumulating higher levels of funding and greater powers.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the man who became known as the grandfather of child support reform, Irwin Garfinkel, suggested adopting sweeping systemic reforms based on the Swedish socialist and Russian communist models. Up until approximately 1990, child support reform advocates argued that the United States had fallen behind in the international race to provide women and children with progressive welfare entitlements. At the same time, feminist groups were arguing for an increased share of their ex-husbands' wealth. Feminist PACs were strategically pumping millions of dollars into political campaigns and had developed their own system of manipulating the press.

By 1990, the U.S. had implemented a brutal and manipulative child support regime that was more Russian than Swedish, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the U.S. Constitutional framework for interaction between the individual and the state. Amounts ordered as child support are arbitrarily controlled by state committees. Collection tactics include everything from workplace harassment and car booting to armed police crashing through doors and massive midnight raids to cart off truck-loads of fathers from poor neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, billions of federal tax dollars began flowing into the pockets of divorce industry insiders. Everyone involved got a piece of the action. State child support bureaucracies grew, judicial retirement accounts expanded, and newly created private child support collection agencies profited from both federal tax dollars and the ability to skim approximately one-third of the child support debt – much newly created by the reforms – from child support payments. The picture presented to the American public however, was tailored to political taste.

Despite the fact that fathers subject to child support orders in the United States had a better record of payment and paid more on average than in any other country, they were demonized as "deadbeats" who abandoned their children financially and emotionally leaving taxpayers with responsibilities that they should bear. It was claimed that taxpayers would save money by "forcing fathers to pay." This laid the foundation for presenting extreme leftist reforms that would intrude into family life and trample individual rights as "conservative" within the American political spectrum; one of many ironies. Similar arguments were given at the end of the Bolshevik Revolution as Communist Party members explained the need for heavy state involvement and control over individual wealth and behavior.

The bureaucratic rules of the welfare system were extended to cover all cases in which private child support is involved. Individual rights were abandoned, giving way to arbitrary en masse manipulation by central committees. Private and government special interests recognized opportunities for profit and power and quickly took control. Unmitigated self-interest provided the engine to sustain the regime against opposition and reason. Ironically – given earlier arguments that the United States was behind the progressive political curve – it became an exporter of radical extreme leftist social, economic, and political reform. The domino effect, feared throughout the Cold War era, had found a new protagonist. Great Britain, Australia, and Canada were among the nations that fell quickly to "deadbeat dad" propaganda and the argument that reforms would reduce welfare costs. They lied. One of the most dramatic changes the reforms brought was the inclusion of non-welfare cases in the new system; which increased the cost of administration without any possibility of lowering welfare costs.

It took longer for the new child support reform movement to effect Sweden, a country that had been mentioned as a model for reform in the United States. In 1996, Sweden's child support formula was adjusted so that low-income parents (usually fathers) would be required to repay more of the state's basic support entitlement. The change was projected to create savings in the welfare system. Within two years, it was widely recognized that the reforms had created serious problems and the government promised an investigation. Low income parents really had low income. Instead of paying more, they were forced into debt in large numbers and could not get out. The traditional distinction between fathers and mothers was apparent. Entitlements were providing a secure economic situation for mothers and children, and the entitlement system was forcing fathers out of mainstream economic activity and into long-term poverty.

The investigation ordered by the government was publicly released on April 28th. (1) It recommends what is in effect a reversal of the previous reforms. Amounts that many noncustodial parents are ordered to pay will be reduced and much of the accumulated debt will be forgiven. In addition, the report recommends that mothers and fathers should share in some of the entitlements previously offered to only one parent. Working parents should be allowed to keep enough of their income to support themselves. Fundamentally, both parents have an equal responsibility to support their children. And regular contact between children and both their parents should be encouraged, not sabotaged by removing economic support from one household.

The additional recommendations are aimed at joint custodial parents rather than all divorced and never-married parents. But an unusually high percent of divorced and never-married parents in Sweden have joint custody, and reforms over the past few years have been aimed at increasing that number. Ideally, Sweden is aiming at joint custody as a norm; with sole custody being granted only in cases in which both parents agree to it or if contact with a parent poses a serious danger to the children.

Historically, Sweden has had one of the most well-thought out and comprehensive child support systems in the world. It is integrated with their general and comprehensive welfare entitlement system, as well as the general and comprehensive mechanisms of social and economic enforcement that go with it. Despite the unconstitutionality of the socialist approach in some respects, Sweden and the United States along with many other countries had shared a common fundamental understanding of the state's authority to impose upon individuals to support their children. On the basis of Delaware law, the Swedish child support formula was nearly reproduced by family court Judge Melson (ca. 1987). Appropriately adjusted for a narrower band of welfare entitlements, it became one of the first legislated state-wide child support guidelines in the United States.

This changed dramatically in 1990 when in response to federal reforms, states arbitrarily increased the amount of child support noncustodial parents were ordered to pay. The savings for taxpayers promised by reformists did not follow. Initially applied in low-income and welfare cases, it was quickly discovered that arbitrarily high payments were sometimes more than the total net income of low-income fathers. Although still handled in a way that is tragically irrational, payments required in welfare cases were reduced. States were instead promised a larger share of federal funding for ordering arbitrarily high payments in non-welfare cases. The reforms cost taxpayers billions of dollars a year. Media reports however continued to claim the reforms would save money by "forcing fathers to take responsibility for their children."

1991-1994, the Swedish Social Democratic Labour Party experienced one of the few periods since 1932 in which it was not in power. Keen to win the election in 1994, consultants were called in from far and wide. Among them were some of Bill Clinton's political advisors from the United States. Right-wing opposition complained that Social Democrats taxed so much that families could not live on what remained of their pay, creating the need for higher government pay-outs and reducing personal freedom. The argument helped a right-wing coalition into power in 1991, and it was at least reasonable to believe that it might work again on the still heavily taxed population.

A page was borrowed from the American political play-book. Social Democrats promised that the government would no longer shoulder the burden that divorced and never-married fathers should bear. An immediate reduction in taxes could not be promised, but savings would be on the way as soon as they were in charge again. Votes for the socialist bloc were barely sufficient to form a three-party coalition government. The Social Democratic Labour Party was by far the largest of the three. By 1996, they made good on their promise and increased the share of child support entitlements that noncustodial parents are required to repay; announcing a projected savings. But Sweden is a different place. The ultimate reaction to the reform has not been what U.S. political advisors would have expected.

A system of checks and balances in the U.S. was strategically written into its constitution. In theory, an error in law that sufficiently infuses government too far into private issues in a way that undermines individual rights must be corrected. If a law is found to be unconstitutional in only one single case, the courts must declare it unconstitutional for all. Thus, the benefit extends to everyone, rich or poor. Replacing the constitutional system of checks and balances in practice with an unchecked socialist bureaucracy in the United States effectively eliminates normal non-violent cultural responses to injustice. The other response – through the ballot box – became impotent when both the Republican and Democratic parties pledged full support for the reforms, which were made enormously popular through a sustained media propaganda campaign.

Fathers in the United States, as a politically defined group, were slow to respond to changes in child support law because the need to define themselves as a political group had not previously existed. Until approximately 1990, legislators were forced to remain within the bounds that the Constitution set for them. Fathers could demand basic rights individually. Because of a 200+ year history of legal precedents, it was by then rarely necessary to put domestic relations law through constitutional tests. The necessity emerged in response to the federal decision to intrude in family life much more vehemently than ever before, and to impose arbitrary "obligations" on parents. But for reasons beyond the scope of this article, courts have been more than hesitant to meet their constitutional obligation to check the assault; opening the door to what could be the largest "social policy" scam in U.S. history.

Sweden does not have such a strong liberal foundation and has little in the way of guaranteed individual rights. As a result, they are better at being socialists than Americans. Their system of checks and balances was developed and tuned by decades of relatively humane democratic socialism. Many Swedes are quite proud of this accomplishment. They have advised other countries to adopt their bureaucratic controls, and made it a serious issue in reforming the European Union. To understand the important distinctions specified in the following paragraphs, it is vital to keep the first three sentences in this paragraph in mind. Sweden has never had a strong political foundation in individual rights. They are more inpendent on other mechanisms of "democratic life," some of which are available in the United States, but do not form the primary cultural response to injustice in the minds of most Americans. The differences are not theoretical. There are pronounced cultural differences that developed through Sweden's unique history that have significant practical effects.

Open government: Democracy in the Swedish sense fully expects citizen participation. Registered fathers rights organizations (among others) are invited to review and comment on legislative proposals of interest before they are submitted to the parliament for consideration to become law. It was difficult to demonize fathers who had the opportunity to look them straight in the eye and respond to negative propaganda.

Awareness of the powerful effects of government policy on individuals. No sooner did the new rules appear on the table, than did existing fathers rights groups, backed by sociologists, economists, and political scientists begin public criticism. Articles appeared in newspapers, fathers and children's advocates were interviewed on radio programs, and all sides were represented in regular public televised debates.

Checks and balances exist within the bureaucracy. By the time the next election season began, state accountants had already discovered that a much higher percentage of Swedish men were paying child support through the state collection system. Rather than receiving a financial benefit, the state had merely driven more .thers into poverty. A large portion of the expected benefit simply appeared as a mountain of child support debt that would eventually be forgiven under specialized bankruptcy laws. The state was paying an extra cost of secondary management of the child support debt. More fathers were driven out of mainstream economic activity. Nothing about the reform was good. The same Social Democrats who had promised reform during the previous election found themselves promising an investigation and likely reform of the reform.

Pluralism. At present, seven political parties hold seats in parliament and command public attention. Any of them can criticize the positions and policies of the others, making it less likely that dishonest or malformed policy will continue without scrutiny. Many of the members of these parties are also fathers.

Limits to free speech in the absence of strong protection of individual rights. Swedes are more limited in granting the right to express an opinion than allowed under the U.S. Constitution. People can feel hate toward groups of people in the privacy of their own homes, but they are not legally entitled to threaten groups through public display. Socialism is obviously oriented more toward groups than individuals. But in Sweden, a politician would not last long once the impression was set that they were demonizing a group for political gain. Simply put, it is too difficult to drive policy by treating all men with disdain. In response to increased political discussion and debate, the majority of domestic relations reforms passed in Sweden over the past five years have increased the legal rights of divorced and never-married fathers.

The same problems with child support policy exist in the United States, but have become the subject of political spin rather than honest analysis. The Office of Child Support Enforcement uses rising debt and collection activity to justify its existence; the more the better. Incumbent politicians claim increases in "collections" from people forced into debt during their time in office as an accomplishment, while challengers claim the rising debt is proof that government has not gone far enough. Each side consecutively pushes the other peddle to keep the bicycle moving in the same direction.

The recently released Swedish investigation falls short of promising individual justice. Socialism is satisfied by improved statistics. But it does make an honest first attempt to reduce the number of parents who are financially destroyed by the reformed child support system. Parents should be allowed to keep enough of their own income to support themselves, a comparatively difficult task due to relatively low Swedish paychecks and high taxes. The investigators do suggest that some opportunity for corrective action should be offered to those who still find themselves entrapped by government manipulation.

Low income noncustodial parents whose cases may be dealt with fully by bureaucratic agencies may have it easier than higher income parents who seek adjustments and corrections to court orders. Sweden has a relatively underdeveloped judiciary. It can take years to conclude relatively simple child support cases in the courts; sometimes forcing irrational agreements just to create closure. By signing agreements, parents give up a large measure of their legal right to pursue adjustment later should circumstances change; even if the system makes exercising their rights excruciatingly difficult.

The problem is exacerbated by lack of serious oversight for the country's generous state sponsored legal services entitlements. Ironically, Sweden's laws are designed to be as concrete and formulaic as possible. But lawyers can stretch minor cases in which pursuing agreement is irrational into years of senseless theoretical discussion and psychological play until the full amount of the entitlement is used up, even while litigants on both sides are begging for completion. Unethical behavior by lawyers can be reported, but the statistical record on disciplinary action shows that lawyers operate with impunity. Once an action starts, parents are often stuck with lawyers that are working against them. Administrators typically deny continuation of legal services entitlements when a lawyer is dismissed; making the entitlement one for lawyers instead of litigants. Many parents cannot afford to unravel the tangled legal webs their lawyers create and also pay for the service that they should have received to begin with.

The lack of comprehensive fundamental rights in Sweden also weakens the purpose of appeal to the extent that some people speculate that higher court judges do not always read cases before rubber-stamping lower court decisions. This underscores a basic difference between the culture of unlimited government rooted in socialism and the liberal ideal that the state must take care to limit their actions against individuals to those that are clearly and specifically justified. "Due process of law" also incorporates a basic understanding regarding the efficiency of the process: Justice delayed is justice denied. Parents awaiting adjustments to child support orders years after relevant circumstances have changed experience the injustice of delay first-hand.

The new Swedish investigation starts out ahead of the United States by admitting there is room to pursue a more and rational treatment of the child support issue. Suggested reforms are a path to a better statistical result than the United States has now. Recognition of the problem by the Swedes marks the first open contradiction to the forced movement of almost three decades of international child support reform. The system developed within the context of local political institutions and culture is better than what the international child support reform movement has to offer. When and how will other countries, including the United States, respond?

Early last year, a judge in Georgia declared the Georgia child support guidelines unconstitutional. He specified three fundamental constitutional requirements for child support decisions. Roughly; child support is child support (not alimony or a way of increasing federal funding), both parents have an equal duty to support their children, and relevant circumstances must be properly accounted for in the formulation of child support decisions. In short, the amount of child support awarded cannot be arbitrary. The decision was recently overturned by the Georgia supreme court, effectively canceling individual rights protection against arbitrary state control as required by the state and federal constitutions. [See related article.]

If the courts do not work, there are two alternatives. Either the people of the United States accept the loss of the fundamental rights and the transition to socialism at a fundamental level; perhaps replacing Congress with a Swedish-style representative parliament, or dramatic steps are taken to remove the Republican and Democratic party politicians from power; replacing them with people who will take their oaths to protect and defend the Constitution seriously.

By the way; the child support reforms didn't work in Russia either. When the population there demolished the power structure, they angrily toppled the statues of divisive group-oriented reformers.

1. Ett reformerat underhllsstd, Betankande av Underhllsstdsutredningen, Statens Offentliga Utredningar, SOU 2003-42, Stockholm 2003; ISBN 91-38-21998-0, ISSN 0375-250X