Child Support Policy
The father of today's child support public policy, his personal exploitation of the system, and the fallacy of his "income shares" model in use in Kansas.
and Robert Williams
by James R. Johnston
Federal law requires that awards determined by the application of child support guidelines be rebuttable. It specifies:
"A written finding or specific finding on the record that the application of the guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate in a particular case as determined under criteria established by the State, shall be sufficient to rebut the presumption in that case."
It further specifies that guidelines:
"shall be reviewed at least once every 4 years to ensure that their application results in the determination of appropriate child support award amounts."
In other words, the table values established within the guidelines are "presumed" to accurately reflect the situation of parents and their children at the various income levels. In theory at least, federal law enables parents the possibility of pointing out to the court why the guideline numbers should not apply in their particular case (rebutting the presumption). Practice and theory though, are very different.
Economic studies used in the Income Shares model are based on total family expenditures in intact families. These are estimates of spending that might occur if the parents were living together, sharing all the expenses of a single household. Spending on children in split households has a random relationship to the combined income of the parents. The income of both parents can be appropriately considered in the award decision only if that consideration is consistent with the fact that the parents do not live together and therefore do not use their income jointly. Joint income, and table values related to joint income, have no relationship at all to family economic circumstances in the context of a child support award decision. In a particular state, even assuming that the sample of data is appropriate (and that is dubious as I will show below), individual case circumstances (those which deviate from the circumstances presumed in developing the guideline, such as separate households and continued dual parent involvement), cannot be adequately considered unless the numeric table is categorically divided (food, clothing, shelter, transportation, entertainment, etc.). Without an explicit and clear conceptual basis for the award, a parent attempting to rebut the presumptive amount on the basis that it is unjust or inappropriate must do so without knowing what just and appropriate means.
The only way to properly apply mathematical decision models within the context of Constitutional justice is to fully disclose the nature of the mathematics, the underlying reasoning, and the assumptions in such a way as to make their review practical in comparison with the circumstances of each case. Currently state committees reviewing the models and the underlying data, the judges making awards using the resultant support schedules, and attorneys and parents living with the results of them, are not able to directly tie the schedule to specific cases. It literally is impossible! Federal law (and the Constitution) requires a just and appropriate award in each case, and the goal for states is to construct guidelines that are sufficient to do so in every circumstance to which they are applied. It is also required that judges can identify inappropriate and unjust results and that attorneys and parents can argue for deviation when a formula fails. My state of residence, Kansas, is a joint custody preference state by statute, which logically entails some degree of joint parental involvement. Even those states without such a preference generally apply some minimal level of parenting time (visitation). Separation/divorce inherently means separate households. Therefore, use of the existing guidelines based on intact family expenditures without inclusion of involved noncustodial parent expenditures on children, is inappropriate in all such cases. Guidelines have continued to fail to take the reality of parenting expenditures of an involved second parent into account.
Base Data Used in the "Income Shares" Model Leading to Child Support Schedules
Upon joining the State of Kansas Child Support Guidelines Advisory Committee in early 1998, I was advised by a long term member of the Committee to be sure and understand the economics involved in our states guidelines. Therefore, in an effort to understand our methodology, I researched the data base that feeds the model here to establish the various schedules. I was astounded at what I discovered and shared the information with the rest of the Committee. To my surprise, most of what I shared about the economic methodology used had not been discussed to any degree with the Committee previously. This is probably common in most states.
Most state guidelines utilize expenditure data developed from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) in the development of the child support obligation schedules. It consists of 5,000 household surveys conducted each quarter, totaling 20,000 surveys/year. (The BLS said that the 5,000 surveyed is a staggered pool concept. The whole annual sample is the same 5,000 households for 3 quarters, and a new 5,000 for a 4th quarter.)
Recognizing that each state is to have guidelines appropriate to that specific state, I called the regional BLS office in Kansas City, as well as their main office in Washington, and asked how many of the sample actually came from Kansas. All they could tell me was that it was "somewhat less than 100 surveys" (with all but a few out of the Kansas City Metro area, and the remaining coming from Lawrence, KS. None came from any other cities in the state, including Wichita which has the largest population in Kansas). Therefore, this states guidelines,
to specifically apply to its child support cases, are based upon generalized data, virtually all of which comes from out of state, and again which are derived from intact family expenditures. With this small national sample size, this has to be the case in each state. The bigger problem however, is the sample data itself.
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