© 2001  Karen Selick
The Guidelines, Myth and F.A.C.T.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the January, 2001 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


The Guidelines, Myth and F.A.C.T.

Lenore Weitzman’s 1985 book The Divorce Revolution inaugurated the myth that women suffer a 73 percent decline in their standard of living after divorce, while men enjoy a 42 percent increase. 

Later researchers pointed out that these figures were grossly in error.  They were based on an extremely small sampling.  They looked only at the very short term.  Data were missing from more than half the respondents.  The numbers transcribed into the computer files didn’t match what the survey participants had actually written down on paper.  The conclusions conflicted markedly with those produced by larger, more sustained studies in this field.

Weitzman eventually admitted that her computer files and her resulting calculations were flawed.  However, the damage had already been done.  Her shocking figures had found their way into hundreds of news stories and scholarly articles.  They had been cited in dozens of court cases.  It is the original outrageous "feminization of poverty" claim, not the retraction, that lingers in the public mind.

Canada’s child support guidelines, now approaching their fourth anniversary in the Divorce Act, are part of the aftermath of this myth.  They attempt to alleviate the alleged poverty of divorced women by increasing the amount of child support that custodial parents (usually women) receive. 

I thought the whole guideline scheme was ill-considered from the start.  The amounts to be paid by non-custodial parents seemed punitively high to me--really more a device for smuggling in some disguised spousal support than for defraying the extra costs of children in a household. 

Eleven months into the system, in April, 1998, I testified before the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, which was studying the impact of the guidelines.  (Read my written brief and transcript on this site.)

I tried to explain how dismal life had become for some of my male clients.  They had lost their wives, sometimes to adultery.  They had lost custody of their children, who usually went with their wives.  In some cases, they rarely got to see their children, due to geographical distance or spousal hostility.  Then adding insult to injury, they were required to make monthly payments to the person who had done this to them.  They worked all week, but after the government and their "ex" each took a generous slice, what was left to make life worthwhile for them? 

At that time, my views were based on nothing but gut feeling.  Recently, however, I discovered a study that provides some concrete evidence for the unhappy picture I painted.

An actuary and two accountants, working with the parenting association FACT (Fathers Are Capable Too) have calculated how the guidelines affect household incomes of both payers and recipients.  Their paper, blandly entitled Comments on the Child Support Guidelines, can be downloaded from www.fact.on.ca.

Statistics Canada produces figures called Low-Income Cut Off (LICO) lines which are commonly cited as "poverty lines" by politicians, advocacy groups and the media.  One variation is the After Tax LICO line.   It says that if a household’s expenditures for food, shelter and clothing exceed 63.6 percent of after-tax income, the household is considered relatively impoverished.

The FACT paper starts—as did the Department of Justice’s model of how the guidelines would work—with the hypothesis of two divorced parents each earning the same gross income.  It assumes average expenditures as reported by Statistics Canada.  It concludes that support payers at almost every income level are being pushed by the guidelines into a standard of living that is usually described as "near poverty" or "straitened circumstances." 

More than 60 percent of men paying support for one child fall within StatsCan’s "relatively impoverished" zone. More than 80 percent of men paying support for two or three kids fall within the zone.  With four kids, virtually every support payer would be considered relatively impoverished. 

Meanwhile, all support recipients in this model, regardless of number of children or income quintile, end up well into the comfort zone, far better off than their former mates who start with the same initial earnings.

These days, I regularly find myself suggesting to distressed male clients that the only way I can see out of their financial dilemma would be to hitch up with a woman who has the same number of kids as they do and an ex-husband in the same income bracket.  That way, the outflow and inflow would balance.  But stay aloof from her kids, I warn:  if you split up and have to pay support for them, too, you might as well lie down and die.

Speaking of which...When I addressed the Senate committee, I predicted that we would soon see more divorced men slipping into the underground economy, leaving the country, committing suicide, or committing murder.
One senator tried anxiously to sweep the issue back under the rug.  "I hate to see that kind of language used in hearings such as this," she said.

Unwelcome language or not, several recent widely publicized father suicides seem to justify my concern.  Statistics on this subject will be hard to obtain, but what would they prove anyway?

After all, can anyone really say exactly how many lost or ravaged lives these guidelines are worth?

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Jan. 6, 2001