April 5, 2009
Child support orders have been around for decades. In the 1970s and early '80s court custody orders typically included provisions requiring one parent to pay some money each month to the other parent to help support the children. The paying parent usually gave a check or cash to the receiving parent with little state involvement in the process.
Not anymore. Child-support collection in America has become a major state enterprise. Annually taxpayers shell out over $5.4 billion to underwrite child-support collection efforts. Nationally, child support enforcement agencies employ more than 55,000 people in their war on "deadbeats." Compare that with the Drug Enforcement Agency which employs a mere 1,900 agents in America's war on drugs.
The original purpose of child support collection was to obtain money from parents whose children received welfare benefits from the state. Today over 80 percent of the funds received by child support collection agencies come from families not presently receiving welfare.
Child support enforcement agencies have been granted authority well beyond that of ordinary debt collection companies. Wage garnishment, driver and professional license revocations, bank account attachment, property liens and seizures, tax refund interception and prison are all tools readily available to child support enforcement personnel.
No one argues that parents who have the means to pay child support and refuse to do so should be accountable. On the other hand, evidence suggests that all too often it is the poor who bear the brunt of the child support agency's heavy hand.
The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement reports $110 billion of support arrearages nationwide. Less known is the fact that the same office reports over 70 percent of this amount, and 70 percent of the people who owe it, earn poverty level wages. Urban Institute reports estimate upwards of 90 percent of the debt is owed by people earning less than $25,000 per year.
Researcher Sanford Braver indicates the No. 1 cause of non-payment of child support is lack of, or under, employment. The second leading cause of non-payment is lack of relationship with the children.
Best estimates indicate men are obligated to pay child support in about 88 percent of cases. An interesting social paradox exists relative to parents who do not have the money to care for their children. When custodial parents are unable financially to care for their kids a number of state aid programs are available including: subsidized housing, education assistance, day care services, cash, food assistance, medical care and several other programs.
Non-custodial parents living apart from their children and unable to financially care for them (pay child support) are typically subject to punitive measures like arrest, incarceration, license revocation, seizures and forfeitures, etc. Many of these individuals are involuntarily separated from their children. In divorce cases, limiting parents' access to their kids via a custody order often serves as the triggering event leading to child support agency involvement.
Incarcerating indigent people for non-payment does not raise compliance, it simply costs taxpayers money. Debtors' prison formally ended over 150 years ago in this country; for indigent incarcerated child support obligors it is alive and thriving.
Social science research is leading us in new directions as we examine how to address the growing problems related to both father absence and non-payment of support. There are a number of things we know; when parents practice shared parenting (substantial time for kids with both parents), have stable employment, reasonable support orders and are able to obtain order modifications reflecting changes in life circumstances, payment issues are rare.
As new approaches to issues facing the modern family are developed, let's reward child support agencies and family courts for serving kids' best interest when they recognize relationships are more important than revenue.
Michael McCormick is executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers & Children.