In a move just slightly more reassuring than Attorney General John Ashcroft’s draping of the outrageously offensive exposed breast of the "Spirit of Justice," a couple of months ago the feds went after some of the biggest, baddest, behindest deadbeats out there. Sixty-nine dads were busted and thirty-three more are on the We’re-Gonna-Getcha list. Collectively they owe over five million dollars in back child support.

This sweeping contributed to the president’s popularity based on that tried-and-true simple formula: Make war. Gain points. The War on Terrorism was getting old and besides it’s so far away with all those hard to pronounce names. The War on Iraq was being held up by those pesky U.N. folk. Time to change the channel to a little homeland action. Welcome to The War on Deadbeats. Fire when ready. Here’s a conflict millions of us right here at home can sink our teeth into.

We’ll round up the losers who are most in arrears, give ‘em the maximum $250,000 fine and a couple of years in the big house. This will serve the purpose of making Bush look like a mix between a white-Stetsoned hero and a tastefully wrathful God, putting his nuclear-family money where his conservative mouth is by twisting the nuts of a few sacrificial fathers-on-the-lam. The message: So, you couldn’t be a real man and stick around for the kids and now you won’t support them? Then you shall be punished!

Come the next campaign, he can wallow in the resulting triumphant soundbytes: "The W stands for Won’t Put Up with Deadbeats!" "While in office, I lassoed several dozen deadbeat dads!"

Of course this war will have to have casualties. How about seven million for starters— 85% of them mothers? Because that’s a conservative estimate of the number of custodial parents who receive only partial child-support or none at all. And how about another, say, ten million, if you bother to take into account the kids this money is supposed to support?

You won’t be reading about their cause being championed because going after the deadbeats who owe them money isn’t worth it to the government. Why? Because it won’t net headlines as dramatic as the capture of an ex-football player with the former seven figure salary who owes six figures in back support. Or the doctors and the shrinks and all the other haves who, by virtue of their wealth, make most excellent caricatures of The Villain in this new war.

Hanging out down here, on one of the lower financial rungs of single motherhood, I’ve got a decent view. This roundup isn’t going to help anybody. Hostile deadbeats with high incomes will bail themselves out and engage in litigious deviancy sooner than cough up the cash. That five million figure in the headlines turns heads but won’t necessarily swap palms—so far there’s been no word if any of the money has actually been collected, or how incarcerating and fining those busted will contribute toward this collection as well as any future payments. (Hard to earn good money in a cellblock.)

We’re all sinners in the House of George, worthy of damnation whatever choice we make. Any citizen part of any family that isn’t nuclear (no matter how you pronounce that word) must be rooted out and slapped by the long arm of the law, or at least admonished by some Victorian voice of pseudo-ethics. Which is how we wound up with an administrative proposal to coerce welfare moms into marrying their kids’ fathers. And it is also at the root of this recent deadbeat roundup. Both are pathetic political scams, pretending to legislate "love" – staying with or supporting a former partner and kids— all in the name of vote-getting.

Bush, of all people, should know that having the right-touted intact nuclear family is hardly a recipe for success— witness his own substance abuse problems despite his parents long marriage, as well as his daughters’ and niece’s tendencies toward scrapes with the law. If all these statistics about incarcerated parents equaling increased risks for kids are accurate, how is locking up the deadbeats going to solve anything?

When my kid’s dad split, before the kid was out of diapers, things were hard. Very. Nights I’d lie in bed adding up all the money he wasn’t sending me and all the things I could do with it if he did. Eventually, I terminated his parental rights, which freed him of any obligation—financial or otherwise— to us. With that closure, a light bulb went on in the room of reality: I was solely responsible for the kid. Period.

I could’ve taken different legal action, had his paychecks garnished, collected some measly amount well below the already meager average annual child support of $3600. I didn’t. I was so busy just being a single parent, staying afloat, that the extra effort not only wasn’t worth it, it would’ve been some final straw collapsing me in on myself, a huge detriment to my parenting. Begging, pleading, demanding, suing, getting mired in government paperwork— these are things that wreck you with bitterness. And bitterness does not go unnoticed by the kids, who carry it with them into their own problematic adulthood.

About a year ago, sobriety and the steadiness that comes with it prompted my son’s father to make amends though he remains legally without obligation to us. The money comes regularly, extra when – as was the case all of last year— things get tight enough to scare me.

This was nothing government involvement could ever have prompted. Not only that, but his deadbeatism was oddly good for all of us. I discovered a well of inner-strength to pull us through much hell and quite a bit of high water for nearly a decade. The kid got to live without a hatred I would have cultivated fighting for support that wouldn’t have amounted to much. And his dad got to come to the conclusion, on his own, that this was a family he very much wanted to be a part of, if we would have him. (We would, and we do.)

That’s not the happy ending most people are going to get. But best case scenarios see adults owning up to their roles as parents (custodial or non) the best way they can manage—read: minimal bitterness. Worst case has the government stepping in, showing off by making a few flashing-neon examples, but leaving all of us stuck right where we’ve always been on the issue.

About the author:
Spike Gillespie is the author of All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy: A Memoir, and the dotnovel thebelljar.net.  Her next book, a collection of essays entitled, Surrender (but don't give yourself away): Old Cars, Found Hope and Other Cheap Tricks will be out in September 2003. Gillespie is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and her work has appeared in, among other places, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Playboy and Elle, and online at Salon, Nerve, Oxygen, Underwire and AustinMama. She is a reformed circus poodle, a retired stripper (Crazy Lady, 1978-81) and mother to three spawn-of-satan mutts and one freakin' hilarious and very tall almost-twelve-year-old ("But remember, son, I'll always be wider than you...").  She is currently working on a novel about how utterly fucked up love can be (How novel indeed...).