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Fifty years from now, or a hundred years from now, will absent parents still be held financially liable for the support of their children? Two forces have shaped our current system of private liability. The first is a perception, wholly accurate, of large numbers of children in need, children who cannot be adequately provided for by the single parent with whom they live. The second is a moral judgment about absent parents: that they can be justly required to contribute to their children's support throughout the children's minority. Change may occur in the laws of child support if there cease to be any substantial number of children in need-unlikely, but possible-or if there are changes in the perception of the degree of moral responsibility absent parents bear for their children's support or in attitudes toward the proper role of government in assuring the needs of children.

The issues of need and responsibility may seem separate but in fact intertwine. In our society, need is a relative, not an absolute, concept. A person who has less than she or he ought is in need. Children who have lived with both parents, both working, at a high standard of living but now live with one parent at a moderate standard may be perceived as in need even if they live today at as high a standard as the mean of American children. Whether we consider them in need turns in part on whether we consider them to have moral claims on the absent parent's income. Thus, changes in either perceptions of need or perceptions of responsibility, if they occur at all, may well occur at about the same rate. What is difficult to foresee is the rate or direction of change.


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