May 9, 2005
Why has Congress appropriated taxpayer money to give perverse
incentives that break up families and deprive children of their
fathers? The built-in financial incentives in the current
child-support system have expanded the tragedy of fatherless children
from the welfare class to millions of non-welfare divorced couples.
Americans have finally realized that providing generous welfare
through Aid to Families with Dependent Children was counterproductive
because the father had to disappear in order for the mother to receive
taxpayer-paid benefits. Fathers left home, illegitimacy rose in
alarming numbers and children were worse off.
AFDC provided a taxpayer-paid financial incentive to reward girls with
their own monthly check, food stamps, health care and housing if they
had illegitimate babies. "She doesn't need me, she's got welfare"
became the mantra.
Congress tried to reform the out-of-control welfare system by a series
of child-support laws passed in 1975, 1984, 1988, 1996 (the famous
Republican welfare reform), and 1999.
Unfortunately, these laws morphed the welfare system into a massive
middle-class child-support system that deprives millions of children
of fathers who never abandoned them.
As former President Ronald Reagan often said, "The most terrifying
words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm
here to help you."
People think that child-support enforcement benefits children, but it
doesn't. When welfare agencies collect child support, the money
actually goes to the government to reimburse it for welfare payments
already given to mothers, supposedly to reduce the federal budget
(which, of course, is never reduced).
In 1984, Congress passed the Child Support Enforcement Amendment. It
required states to adopt voluntary guidelines for child-support payments.
In 1988, Congress passed the Family Support Act, which made the
guidelines mandatory - along with criminal enforcement - and gave
states less than one year to comply. The majority of states quickly
adopted the model guidelines conveniently already written by a
Department of Health and Human Services consultant who was president
of what was shortly to become one of the nation's largest private
collection companies, which makes its profits on the onerous
guidelines that create arrearages.
The 1988 law extended the guidelines to ALL child-support orders, even
though the big majority of those families never had to interact with
government in order to pay or receive child support. This massive
expansion of federal control over private lives uses a Federal Case
Registry to exercise surveillance over 19 million citizens whether or
not they are behind in child-support payments.
The states collect the child-support money and deposit it in a state
fund, but the federal government pays most of the administrative costs
and, therefore, dictates the way the system operates through mandates
and financial incentives. The federal government pays 66 percent of
the states' administrative overhead costs, 80 percent of computer and
technology-enhancement costs, and 90 percent of DNA testing for paternity.
In addition, the states share in a nearly $500 million incentive
reward pool based on whatever the state collects. The states can get a
waiver to spend this bonus money anyway they choose.
However, most of the child support owed by welfare-class fathers is
uncollectable. Most of them are either unemployed or have annual
incomes less than $10,000.
So, in order to cash in on federal bonus money, build their
bureaucracies and brag about successful child-support enforcement, the
states began bringing into the government system middle-class fathers
with jobs who were never (and probably would never be) on welfare.
These non-welfare families have grown to represent 83 percent of
child-support cases and 92 percent of the money collected, creating a
windfall of federal money flowing to the states.
The federal incentives drive the system. The more divorces, and the
higher the child-support guidelines are set and enforced (no matter
how unreasonable), the more money state bureaucracies collect from the
Follow the money. The less time that noncustodial parents (usually
fathers) are permitted to be with their children, the more child
support they are required pay into the state fund, and the higher the
federal bonus to the states for collecting the money.
States have powerful incentives to separate fathers from their
children, to give near-total custody to mothers, to maintain the
fathers' high-level support obligations even if their income is
drastically reduced and to hang onto the father's payments as long as
possible before paying them out to the mothers. The General Accounting
Office reported that in 2002 that states were holding $657 million in
undistributed child support.
Fatherless boys are 63 percent more likely to run away and 37 percent
more likely to abuse drugs. Fatherless girls are twice as likely to
get pregnant and 53 percent more likely to commit suicide. Fatherless
boys and girls are twice as likely to drop out of high school and
twice as likely to end up in jail.
We can no longer ignore how taxpayer money is providing incentive for
divorce and creating fatherless children. Nor can we ignore the
government's complicity in the predictable social costs that result
from more than 17 million children growing up without fathers.
©2005 Copley News Service