A few weeks ago, I spent some time sitting in the outer office of a County Clerk in a small Indiana city as I waited for some paperwork to be processed for an estate I was opening. Most typically, my time would have been spent with my fingers touching and swiping the screen of my phone in order to keep up with social media or maybe even play a game. But this particular county enforces a rule of “no cellphones in the building” and given that I was not a regular in this courthouse, I decided against being a scofflaw.
When sitting alone in a public space, the one thing that is always of interest is to pay attention to the people nearby. The kind of people you get to watch depends on the setting. If you spend some time in a courthouse in an urban location, you are sure to see the criminal justice system in action. Uniforms, whether blue (City/County police), brown (County sheriff) or orange (well, you know) are everywhere.
But in a small city that is the county seat of a farming community, the criminal element and those who oppose it are much less visible. What I saw instead was a trickle of people whose lives revolve around child support payments.
The first woman I noticed walked up to the window and asked if any checks were in. She is one of the lucky ones. Two of the men she names as fathers of her children are paying. A third is not, and she asked the clerk how she might be able to get him to pay. The clerk gave the best advice she could, but it was clear that neither of the women believed that anything they could do would generate in that man a desire to support his child.
A man came in shortly after the woman left. He had been paid at his job and was there to pay $200 into his support account. Guessing from the way the man was dressed, that $200 was a whole lot of money to him. But choices had been made in his life (whether by him or by others) and he was there to live with the result.
About that time my paperwork was finished and I was ready to leave. But I wondered how many others would be in that clerk’s office before the end of the month to either pay or receive some of the money necessary for the support of their children.
It is my experience that for every absentee parent who makes reasonably solid efforts to keep current on support (especially among those of lower incomes), at least another one makes either little effort or none at all.
A generation or two ago, intact families were the rule, particularly in the smaller midwestern communities of my experience. Lately, however, the intact family seems to be heading towards extinction among those with little education and few prospects. Instead of facing difficulties together as our depression-era ancestors did, “every man for himself” seems to be the new mantra.
The rich and famous can afford the serial relationships that try to grab our attention from the tabloids that populate the checkout aisles where we shop. The children left in the wake of those short-term arrangements may not be happy about things, but they are at least raised in comfortable surroundings because Mumsy and Pops can afford what they need.
But that is not real life for most of the children left behind in the wake of ill-considered or otherwise tragic relationships that had trouble keeping the bills paid even before one of them left. I certainly do not presume to know all of their stories, though I have talked to more than my share of them, often in the context of how they are going to pay for the uninsured auto accident that they caused. There are undoubtedly stories of drug use in many of these situations, though certainly not all.
I don’t profess to have all of the answers. And there have been single parents valiantly stiving to raise their children almost as long as there have been parents and children. However, the last thirty years or so seem to have brought struggling broken families out of the shadows and into the mainstream of life. Not all of those circumstances are desperate or tragic, but there are many others for whom human wreckage does not seem to strong of a term.
There has been a lot written on poverty. You might have heard that we declared war on it in 1965. But after spending some time in the County Clerk’s office in a smaller midwestern community, I don’t have a very good feeling about the outcome.