Child Support Enforcement and Sexual Activity of Male Adolescents

Article excerpt

Strong child support enforcement requires fathers to take financial responsibility for their children and may also encourage more responsible sexual behavior. Using the 1997 - 2001 waves of the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (N = 4,272), this article examines the association between child support enforcement and the sexual activity of male adolescents. Stronger child support enforcement was associated with fewer sexual partners, less frequent sexual intercourse, and a higher likelihood of using contraceptive methods among adolescents who had had sexual intercourse in the 12 months preceding data collection. The effects of child support enforcement were particularly strong for non-White adolescents and those living in high-poverty areas. These findings suggest that strengthening child support enforcement may be associated with reductions in some aspects of male adolescents' sexual activity.

Key Words: adolescents, child support enforcement, males, NLSY, sexual activity.

Despite recent declines, the prevalence of adolescent sexual activity, pregnancy, and births in the United States remains still high (Abma, Martinez, Mosher, & Dawson, 2004; Besharov & Gardiner, 1997; Ventura, Abma, Mosher, & Henshaw, 2003). The percentage of never-married adolescents aged 15-19 years who had ever had sexual intercourse was 45.7% for men and 45.5% for women in 2002. The likelihood of becoming pregnant for women aged 15-19 years in the United States was around 8.5% in 2000, a number two times higher than that of England, four times higher than that of France, and nine times higher than that of Japan (Abma et al.; Singh & Darroch, 2000). Most importantly, the majority of teen pregnancies and births are unintended and nonmarital (Brown & Eisenberg, 1995; Korenman, Kaestner, & Joyce, 2001). Empirical studies provide evidence that teen births may be associated with poor child development and later academic achievement and may diminish the potential for economic success of mothers and fathers (Brown & Eisenberg; Maynard, 1997; Nock, 1998); these results hold even after accounting for potential selection bias between mothers who had given birth as teenagers and those who had not (Lichter & Graefe, 2001). Accordingly, policymakers and researchers have been concerned about the causes of adolescent childbearing and the extent to which governmental policies may be able to influence teenagers' sexual activity decisions and mus reduce unintended pregnancies.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) is the most significant recent federal public policy that has attempted to prevent teenage pregnancy and reduce the incidence of nonmarital births. Notably, it increased the costs of childbearing to absent fathers by strengthening child support enforcement. Specifically, PRWORA streamlined the legal processes for paternity establishment and required states to adopt voluntary, in-hospital, paternity establishment programs and to provide mandatory genetic testing in contested cases. To administer crtild support collection, PRWORA required all states to develop the bureaucratic capacity to monitor all child support payments. It also established a national directory of new hires that could be used to match with state directories to facilitate interstate enforcement of child support obligations. These changes helped shift the child support enforcement system from one in which payment was often discretionary to one in which payment is essentially compelled and automatic (Garfinkel, Meyer, & MeLanahan, 1998; Legier, 1996).

Examinations of the changes in child support enforcement required by PRWORA are thus needed to shed new light on the extent to which governmental policies may or may not affect teenagers' sexual activity. Most previous studies on adolescent sexual activity and pregnancy have focused on women's characteristics (Foster & Hoffman, 2001; Maynard, 1997; Singh & Darroch, 1999) despite the fact that decisions about heterosexual intercourse and contraception usually involve the men as well. …