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Published by EH.NET (March 2004)

Jocelyn Elise Crowley, The Politics of Child Support in America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xiii + 217 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-82460-5; $23 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-53511-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stephen T. Ziliak, School of Policy Studies, Roosevelt University.

In The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991) Albert O. Hirschman observed in the history of social policy three typical reactions to any policy initiative designed for economic uplift. Some critics warn against the new policy (say, extending welfare benefits to anyone passing a means-based test), emphasizing the unintended negative consequences of the policy, the logic of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees. Hirschman calls such reactions “the perversity thesis.” Other critics, Hirschman observes, fear that the same policy will put into “jeopardy” the well-being created by the current policy and state of affairs; or, they say that if the new policy is not adopted the society will jeopardize the well-being of those least able to care for themselves. Still others claim that government- sponsored social policy is “futile” — that competition and rational choice will ensure social policy has no real effects over all on the economic system. This last, what Hirschman calls the “futility thesis,” is the sort of reaction to government programs one finds in the writings of Robert Lucas.

It is rare to find critics espousing two or more “rhetorics of reaction.” Even in welfare policy it is apparently too schizophrenic for a single critic to argue at once that higher benefits backfire by producing more dependents and yet insist the higher benefits are desirable lest we jeopardize the economic lives of the innocent.

Jocelyn Elise Crowley’s The Politics of Child Support in America is a reaction of the jeopardizing kind. As Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder awkwardly writes in a foreword, “[t]his book identifies the leaders in the child support issue arena. We should all be leaders in the cause, because children are our future” (p. ix). Crowley’s ostensive purpose is to explain how child support evolved in American history. “Policy entrepreneurs,” says Crowley, from nineteenth-century charity workers to today’s advocates of fathers’ rights, create child support policy by being “alert” and “persistent,” and employing “rhetorical ingenuity” (pp. 4-8). And, acting like incumbent and challenger firms in a limit-pricing model familiar to economists of industrial organization, policy entrepreneurs attempt to “shake out” the competitors to “become the dominant set of new policy entrepreneurs” (p. 31). Lobbying persuasively and persistently, however, is not she says sufficient for “innovation politics” — Crowley’s term for safe passing of new legislation. If policy entrepreneurs do not pool risk across constituent units the outcome is “unstable politics.” And if entrepreneurs use illegitimate means — violence and other kinds of coercion — the result, she says, is “backlash” or “status quo” politics (p. 19).

Economic historians will be drawn to the general approach: historicize child support as an industrial tale of entry, exit, and shake out (akin to game theoretic explanations of market share and below-marginal-cost pricing). In Crowley’s tale, the “dominant entrepreneurs” are by turns nineteenth-century charity workers; social workers of the early twentieth century to the 1960s; conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s; and women legislators and women’s groups in the 1980s and 1990s. (She is not yet willing to call “dominant” today’s advocates of fathers’ rights, who have of late turned up the heat [p. 193].) The analogy is appealing but in the final analysis it’s hard to see how it cuts ice. Alertness, persistence, and rhetorical ingenuity are reasonable enough if seen merely as categories of policy entrepreneurship and success. But using those categories to explain the history of child support (or any social policy) requires standards of achievement; treatment and control; an idea of difference; a notion of what kind or how much alertness or persistence or rhetorical ingenuity. Crowley doesn’t say.

Some might imagine such standards exist only in the minds of the entrepreneur, a mystic of money who can’t be modeled and can’t be measured. Others, such as economists of the Austrian school, or rhetoricians of the Burkean school, are more optimistic, and try. The rhetorician Wayne C. Booth, for example, proffered rational standards for judging the rhetorical ingenuity of works of fiction, his gaze fixed on ethical effects, with cross over plausibly to non-fiction (The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). Crowley’s approach is considerably less rigorous. Essentially, she attributes ‘more’ or ‘better’ alertness, persistence, and ingenuity to particular point-in-time victors in the policy arena — defaulting, in other words, to a bias of history ‘from above’ we’ve come to expect in sciences lacking interpretative standards of how much or how so.

Examining the rhetoric of policy initiatives in a Boothean vein might have led Crowley to closely examine her own rhetoric, which follows rigidly and tragically the conventions of family law, reducing “father” to wee more than a support check, too little, too late. In a jeopardizing reaction she reduces all fear and obligation of poverty, all contradictory and ambiguous social and property relations, to ‘saving the children.’ That “shared parenting” (p. 191) may be discouraged or denied by law in “liberal” states, such as Iowa and Illinois, is not Crowley’s concern.

Still, The Politics of Child Support in America will make a valuable reference work for anyone interested in the laws and institutions and demographics of twentieth-century child support — especially Chapter 2 on “The Current System.” As Crowley correctly points out, child support needs a lot more innovation and a lot less backlash. Her analogy to the economics of shake out is certainly worth further reflection.

Stephen T. Ziliak is Associate Professor of Economics in the School of Policy Studies, Roosevelt University. He lectures and writes about history, rhetoric, and social policy, most recently “Self-Reliance before the Welfare State,” Journal of Economic History, June 2004.