A Missing Father’s Day Gift: Reforms to Flawed Child Support System

Roughly 5 million fathers* in this country owed child support three years ago, but only somewhat over 3.7 million paid even part of what they owed. Nearly one in five didn’t pay anything at all.

Some may truly have been deadbeat dads — fathers who chose not to pay. But studies suggest that more were “dead broke, not deadbeat,” as a recent CLASP presentation puts it. If not dead broke, then still saddled with child support obligations beyond their means.

The Obama administration could have given these dads an overdue Father’s Day gift — a final rule to update the child support enforcement system.

But the dads are every bit as vulnerable to unaffordable — and escalating — child support obligations as they were when the window for commenting on the proposed rule closed seventeen months ago.

It would benefit both the fathers who owe child support — or will — and the mothers and children who need their support. Here’s how.

More Realistic Support Orders. States may base child support obligations on what parents can potentially earn if they’re unemployed or underemployed, i.e., earning less than the decision-makers believe they could.

The notion here is that some dads deliberately choose poverty or near-poverty to shirk their child support responsibilities. Or they work off the books to hide what they earn.

Using so-called imputed income, rather than what fathers demonstrably earn is obviously problematic — perhaps especially so for those in low-wage jobs because what they earn is an iffy calculation.

How much, for example, can a restaurant worker or department store clerk earn when so many retail businesses cut their hours back without warning? How much when businesses of various sorts hire extra workers when they need them and let them go when they don’t?

The proposed rule would require states to use actual earnings and income as the basis for setting child support awards. They would also have to ensure that awards leave non-custodial parents enough to pay for basic needs, e.g., food, housing.

Less Counterproductive Penalties. States obviously have to base support orders on some calculation of ability to pay. If fathers truly can’t comply, they have some obligations to modify the orders.

But they often don’t. In fact, they sometimes make matters worse. They impose fines, for example, increasing the debt — and thus the likelihood that fathers will fall further behind.

They may suspend drivers’ licenses, making it impossible for the dads to get to work — or do work that requires driving. They may suspend occupational licenses, which so many jobs now require.

States may also jeopardize a dad’s job by garnishing his wages, i.e., requiring his employer to send a portion to the agency that distributes child support.

They may send the dad to jail — obviously making work impossible. Yet penalties for nonpayment mount up because courts sometimes treat incarceration as voluntary unemployment. (Not a joke.)

When the dad returns to the community, he’ll have a criminal record — a major barrier to getting hired, as we know. Some dads do get new jobs, however — and then find themselves back in jail because they’re unable to pay off the accumulated child support they owe.

Even dads who’ve spent no time behind bars may have a hard time landing jobs because their child support debt damages their credit record — something else many employers check and use to screen out applicants who’d otherwise qualify.

The proposed rule would limit cases where a parent in arrears is jailed. Beyond that, it would encourage, but not require states to consider a parent’s basic needs before doing other things that would tend to make his financial situation worse.

More Help for Increasing Income. One obvious way to make meaningful child support payments affordable for low-income parents is to help them find decent-paying jobs.

The proposed rule would allow states to use some of the child support enforcement funds they receive for a range of job services, e.g., training, help with job searches, subsidies for work-related costs like transportation and tools.

A nine-state study by the Urban Institute found that non-custodial parents who collectively owed more than half the unpaid total in 2006 had little or no income states could identify — at most, $10,000 a year.

Those with no reported income were expected to pay a median of $217 a month in child support, according to a prior Institute study. About the same for those whose median monthly income was $293.

You can’t get blood out of a turnip, as the saying goes. And heaping fines on top of fines, tossing dads in jail, perhaps charging them for court costs and/or upkeep there won’t extract a drop. But enabling them to earn enough to make paying child support feasible surely would.

Better for Mothers and Children, As Well As Fathers. Enabling poor and near-poor fathers to find — and keep — jobs that pay enough for them to meet their child support obligations without foregoing food, housing and the like would seem like a no-brainer.

Making support orders more realistic and confining penalties to genuine deadbeats might, however, seem to let fathers off the hook at the expense of their children and the mothers who are raising them.

But, as the National Council of State Legislatures says, those mothers and children generally aren’t getting anything from low-income fathers now.

Holding them accountable for something they can’t do only discourages them from trying, the head of the federal Child Support Enforcement Office suggests.

Some studies have linked regular child support payments to fathers’ continuing involvement in their children’s lives, including one that suggests payments increase contacts over time. That would seem generally a good thing for both dads and kids.

Outraged Congressional Republicans, however, view the proposed rule as a threat to personal responsibility and “strong families” — not to mention their prerogatives as policymakers. They’ve moved to block the administration from issuing a final version — or making any part effective by other means.

Might this explain why another Father’s Day has passed without child support reform? We outsiders don’t know. But whatever the reason, it’s a sad thing.

* The Census Bureau report I’ve used doesn’t include figures for non-custodial parents who owe child support. It does, however, provide them for custodial mothers owed child support and what portion, if any they received. I’ve used these to back into the figures for fathers.

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