The letter by Robbie Felix that calls upon Costa Rica to demand more financial responsibility from absent fathers (and to offer second DNA tests to determine paternity) as a means of alleviating child poverty is well-meaning but shortsighted.
A main reason why only a third of single mothers in Costa Rica petition for child support is that receiving it is rarely worth their effort. The courts generally set child support awards at about 20 percent of the father’s income. If the father earns a typical working-man’s wage of $500 per month, that makes for a child support award of less than $25 per week. Yes, this is something, but when paying support many men also expect sexual favors, meals, and other things to which they feel their “provider” role entitles them. Some even try to control the women as if they are still the head of the house, and not a few exert this control through physical violence. Rather than deal with this machista nonsense, many single mothers opt to forgo the measly amount of support they could legally receive.
Moreover, many of these absent fathers have more than one child, often by different women. When you start lopping 20 percent off a low income three or four times, you realize that the guy simply can’t pay for them all. In fact, it is not terribly unusual for a man to have fathered more than five children. Since the child support payments for five children eat up 100 percent of his income, how is he going to pay for the sixth — much less support himself?
Clearly the problem, and thus the solution, is more complicated than the failure of many men to pay child support or even of many women to seek it. The problem is why so many women permit themselves to be impregnated by men they prefer not to marry, and then why so many men impregnate women they don’t plan on marrying. When mothers and fathers commit to one another and share the same household, after all, it is easier for them and their children to avoid poverty.
There are lots of explanations for this problem, including long-standing cultural traditions and the fickleness of adolescent infatuations. However, another explanation may make some expats uneasy. The trend lines show a steady increase in births to single mothers and also an increase in female-headed households, since 1990.
These trends parallel the emergence of Costa Rica as a favored destination for sex tourists. These simultaneous developments do not appear unrelated. Young mothers who face the choice between dealing with the fathers of their babies or earning more money more easily from sex tourists, sometimes decide to target the tourists. This in turn intensifies the machismo of men, who priced out of the marriage market for their own women, feed their wounded egos by impregnating and then leaving the women that they couldn’t afford to marry anyway.
My point is that sex tourism bears some of the responsibility for child poverty in Costa Rica. Ironically, many of these tourists believe that they are helping the single mothers, and in the short term they may be. However, in the long term, sex tourist dollars entice women into prostitution, discourage them from committing to the men who father their children and even discourage them from taking other practical steps to improve their own financial lives, like finishing school.
It would be nice if the problem of child poverty in Costa Rica could be solved with a second DNA test and a more active pursuit of deadbeat dads. Alas, the problem is more complicated, and some of these complications can be seen by a reflective look in the mirror.