Academic journal article Family Relations

Normative Beliefs about Parents' and Stepparents' Financial Obligations to Children Following Divorce and Remarriage

Academic journal article Family Relations

Normative Beliefs about Parents' and Stepparents' Financial Obligations to Children Following Divorce and Remarriage

Article excerpt

Family forms are changing rapidly, but are cultural belief systems changing at the same pace? For instance, what are the cultural norms regarding a parent's financial responsibility for his or her children following divorce? What are the financial responsibilities of stepparents toward their stepchildren? Understanding cultural beliefs such as these is an important step in the process of planning appropriate public policy and effective educational and intervention programs. Rather than basing programs and policy entirely on what experts believe to be the best approach, it may be more efficient to first ascertain what values and beliefs are extant in society and to build upon these. Experienced clinicians advise novice therapists to "begin where the client is." This recommendation is fitting for social policy makers and family practitioners alike.

The primary objective of this study is to assess societal expectations regarding family obligations following marital dissolution and remarriage. A key issue in these family transitions is financial responsibility for children. Therefore, normative obligations regarding the financial support of children are specifically examined.

It probably is safe to assume that most Americans believe that parents are obligated to financially support their minor children until the children are capable of being self-sufficient. The institutions of society, including laws and social policy, are built around this expectation. Many people also would agree that divorce does not end parents' obligation to financially support their children. However, because there is a wide variation in noncustodial fathers' levels of involvement with their children and in the amount of economic support they provide for them, some researchers have concluded that there is an absence of clear norms or rules regarding fathers' responsibilities postdivorce (e.g., Seltzer, 1991b).

Parents' financial support of children following divorce is by no means a uniform phenomenon. Despite the passage of stricter child support legislation in recent years, many divorced parents, usually fathers, either fail to pay child support, are negligent in their payments, or pay an insufficient amount to adequately support their children. According to 1987 U.S. Census Bureau figures, 50% of noncustodial fathers who are required to pay child support do not pay the full amount, and 25% of these fathers pay nothing at all (Peters, Argys, Maccoby, & Mnookin, 1993). Partly as a result of this reduced financial support, children whose parents divorce often find that their standard of living drops dramatically. Divorce can mean a decrease of 25% to 30% in household income for mothers and children (Hoffman & Duncan, 1988).

Major reductions in household income can have severe consequences. For many children, it means that they must live at or below the poverty level. Of all the children eligible to receive child support in 1981, 35% were living in poverty and nearly 30% were receiving some form of welfare assistance (Nichols-Casebolt, 1986). The economic conditions that define poverty threaten children's immediate well-being and place them at risk of long-term disadvantage. Poor children are likely to experience a number of serious risk factors, including malnutrition, physical and psychological stress, abuse and neglect, chronic and untreated health problems, and learning disabilities (Chafel, 1993).

Even those children who do not become impoverished following parental divorce may have their life course drastically altered due to reductions in household finances. For example, divorced women and their children are often forced to move into less expensive housing in a new neighborhood and school district. Such moves uproot children at a time when they are already having to adapt to major changes in their lives. The stress associated with these transitions adds to the stress of parental separation.

The custody arrangement of children following divorce is often related to the level of financial support they receive. …

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