DC Mayor Bowser Won’t Halt Triggered Tax Cuts to Gain Needed Funding

April 13, 2017

Just finished my annual dialogue with my tax preparation software. So as always, my thoughts turn to the tax laws that determine what I have to pay. A sweeping federal tax reform is much in the news. And I’ll probably have things to say about that.

But I’ll start with the automatically triggered tax cuts Mayor Bowser has decided to let alone in her proposed budget, styled “DC Values in Action: A Roadmap to Inclusive Prosperity.”

These because they don’t hinge on new legislation. And they push down spending because the District, like most states must balance its budget every year.

As you may know, the triggered tax cuts reflect recommendations made by the Tax Revision Commission in 2014. It didn’t recommend triggering them whenever a certain revenue projection exceeded the version the budget was built on.

That was the work of DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who folded them, ranked according to his preferences into the final version of the legislative package that accompanied the Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

A last minute thing. Other Councilmembers had no chance to consider them — perhaps didn’t even know they were there.

The triggered tax cuts have already reduced revenues by $102 million — none a one-time loss. The rest will all kick next fiscal year, unless the Council decides to instead recoup about $100 million.

Some of the cuts, would benefit lower and moderate-income residents, though not those with incomes so low they already don’t owe income taxes, once they’ve taken all now allowable exemptions, credits and the like. Nor, of course, those who’ve no taxable income at all.

These cuts include a further increase in the standard deduction, which a very large percent of DC filers with incomes less than $75,000 choose because they don’t have more costly specific deductions like interest on a mortgage or real property taxes high out-of-pocket medical expenses. (The District relies on the federal government’s Schedule A for these.)

The other of this sort is a multi-part increase in the personal exemption, which applies to all filers and their dependents, except apparently those whose incomes exceed $275,000.

But the surplus also triggers a second increase in the threshold for the estate tax, bringing it to $5.49 million if left by an individual and twice that for a married couple — the same as in federal law.*

Why the District should aim to mirror a tax giveaway to heirs of the very most prosperous that Congressional Republicans insisted on as part of the deal that pulled us back from the fiscal cliff is a mystery.

Additional cuts in the business franchise tax, coupled with a further cut in the business income tax are, at the very least questionable.

Sure, we want profit-making businesses in the city — a source of jobs, among other things. But a recent survey indicates that the taxes they must pay are a relatively minor factor in their decisions on whether to locate here or elsewhere.

Topping the list is the ready availability of workers with the knowledge and/or skills they need. One could do a lot to help residents qualify for and get jobs with the potential loss of $35.7 million.

Advocacy organizations of various sorts have already flagged a wide range of shortfalls in the Mayor’s proposed budget. We’ll have a fuller accounting from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute fairly soon — and undoubtedly more from other concerned nonprofits too.

I’d thought to cite examples, based on the Mayor’s prosperity promise and my own topmost concerns. But even summaries made this post far longer than my somewhat flexible maxim. So I’ll return to them shortly.

Yet I don’t want to leave the impression that the Mayor’s budget shortchanges her low-income constituents in every way.

The most significant example of how it would benefit them is the funding she proposes to begin the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families time limit reforms recommended by diverse working group the Department of Human Services convened.

This will not only save roughly 6,500 families from losing all their benefits when the new fiscal year begins — and more as time goes on.

It will preserve those benefits for all children and all parents who’re meeting their work preparation and/or job requirements until they’ve found jobs or otherwise gained enough income to put them over the eligibility cut-off.

Cash benefits being as low as they are — and will be — the initiative in and of itself hardly shares the non-inclusive prosperity reflected in the District’s tax revenues. But it does save very poor families from the most dire poverty.

And the non-cash benefits — free training and, in some cases, formal education, no-cost child care and transportation — give parents a chance to move from welfare to decent-paying work and, in the process, improve their children’s future prospects.

* The thresholds were somewhat lower when the Council adopted the triggers, but the legislation refers to raising the threshold “to conform to the federal level.” And the federal level rises with the inflation rate.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Mayor’s budget doesn’t altogether reflect the working group’s recommendations. They would significantly protect children if their parents had their benefits cut for not complying with their work requirements by allocating 80% of the family grant to them.

The Mayor would split the grant 50-50. As a practical matter, this might not make much difference. The parents will have the same amount to spend, and it will surely go for the same basic needs. We will need to see how the Mayor justifies her split, assuming she or a Department of Human Services official is asked.


What Trump Could and Wants to Do to Disadvantage Disadvantaged Kids

April 3, 2017

Having canvassed the big problems with public funding for private school vouchers, I’ll turn to what I’ll call some backdoor maneuvers, plus other ways Trump’s budget would further disadvantage disadvantaged kids..

Backdoor Federal Funding for Private School Choice

Trump wouldn’t have to have to put all federal funding for private school enrollment into the spending part of his budget. He could propose tax credits, taking a leaf from state playbooks. Like all other credits, that’s spending through the tax code.

But it doesn’t seem to grow the government — a big bad from the right-wing perspective, including Trump’s, of course.

In fact, as the Tax Policy Center says, it seems to do the opposite, without really doing so. In this case, the revenues lost could instead be plowed into programs to foster educational equality.

Four states award tax credits to parents for private schools tuition—and two of these for other expenses also. The credits, of course, benefit only parents who owe state taxes. Federal tax credits would do the same.

And as we know from former Presidential candidate Romney’s gaffe, many lower-income people don’t owe federal income taxes. But, as I early said, the voucher system tilts toward well-off families.

Seventeen states offer tax credits to organizations that donate money for scholarships to private schools, including those operated by religious organizations.

This is a clever way of getting around what many view as a breach of the First Amendment prohibition against any law establishing a religion, including one that promotes it.

The Supreme Court nonetheless let Arizona’s tax credits stand, but the narrow majority based its decision on legal technicality, not the substantive complaint.

The federal tax code already allows filers to take such donations as deductions, if the money goes to a non-profit. But Trump could jawbone prospective donors, dangle promises, celebrate the persuaded, etc. Very much in his dealmaker mode.

Backdoor School Choice in the Budget

Trump’s budget blueprint includes $1 billion more for Title I of the Education Act — now named the Every Child Succeeds Act.

The blueprint says it’s “dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system … that enables Federal, State and local funding to follow the student to the school of his or her choice.”

This would fundamentally undermine the purpose of Title I and the way all versions have achieved it. As things stand now, basic grant funds go to schools districts based on the percent of poor and near-poor children they have.

So they help provide equal educational opportunity — in part because it costs more to educate poor children and in part because public schools in high-poverty neighborhoods generally have less to spend. Like all public schools, they’re funded largely through property taxes, rFederal grants and state funding notwithstanding.

Trump would shift funds from high-poverty schools by having a student’s portion go to any publicly-funded school s/he enrolled in, including one a wealthy community. That much less then for a school that needs it most—and for the children left behind.

Title I portability, as it’s called, was a controversial issue during the effort to revise No Child Left Behind. In the interests of bipartisanship — and one would like to think, commitment to the fundamental purpose of Title I —  members of the responsible Senate committee agreed not to include it.

At the time, the National Coalition for Public Education warned that proposals like Trump’s version portability were intended to make initiating private school vouchers easier. No reason, I think, to view Trump’s differently, despite his first relatively low-cost stab.

Other Disadvantages for Disadvantaged Kids

The Trump budget would, among other things, eliminate funding for after-school programs — a larger cut than the extra he’d commit to Title I.

The programs vary a lot, but as a whole they shore up students’ academic skills, e.g., by pairing them with tutors, increase their interest in learning by engaging them in intriguing activities like computer coding.

They also foster their health through team sports, other physical exercise and free or nearly-free snacks, nutritionally balanced according to guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which subsidizes them. For some children, it’s the last food they’ll get for the day.

And on top of all this, they provide free, supervised care so that parents can work after the school closing bell rings. The alternative, would cost, on average, $67 a week  — and a whole lot more in some states.

But even the average would cost a parent with two school-age kids more than she’d earn at the federal minimum wage rate. So she’d forfeit the pay — another way this piece of Trump’s budget would disadvantage disadvantaged kids.

Also proposed for zero-funding is a program that helps fund “the quality and effectiveness” of teachers and principals and “provide low-income and minority students greater access to them.”

While not only for teachers in high-poverty schools, ESSA gives heavier weight to districts with these schools than its predecessor, as well it should. Recent studies confirm what many have said for a long time.

By all major measure of teacher quality, e.g., teacher experience, scores on licensing exams, the least qualified teachers are the most likely to have the responsibility for educating students disadvantaged by poverty and/or color.

So far as “access” is concerned, it seems to mean reducing class size, judging from how school districts used their recent grants. That, of course, enables teachers to give individual kids more attention, which means, among other things, that they pay attention instead of acting up in the back of the room.

Overly-large classes may help account for the teacher experience quality gap. Teachers in high-poverty schools get frustrated because they’ve got too many kids to teach, especially given the disadvantages they bring to the classroom, e.g., fewer or no books at home, fewer words heard, stress, hunger.

So the teachers find other professional opportunities or they transfer to a better-off school — a privilege they gain with seniority that a higher percent recently took advantage of than teachers in low-poverty schools.

Both avenues out leave openings that seem likely to be filled by a new cohort of less-qualified teachers. We thus have still another way that low-income and other disadvantaged students would lose out if the Trump budget prevails.

More to Come?

The blueprint, of course, is merely a preview. The Education Department would lose $9.2 billion — 13.5% less than what it has today, when the spending caps in the Budget Control Act have constricted funding.

So we’re sure to see more and larger cuts when he’s signed off on a full-fledged proposed budget. And you can bet they’ll fall heaviest, directly and indirectly, on poor and near-poor students.


Affordable Housing Crunch for Lowest-Income Renters

March 9, 2017

Another year, another report on how extraordinarily unaffordable housing is for low-income people nationwide and in every state, as well as the would-be state of the District of Columbia.

Affordability Basics

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s overview of the “housing gap” focuses on rental units that the lowest tier in the official housing policy lexicon could afford and actually move into.

These are extremely low-income households — those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median for the area they live in. NLIHC includes a sub-tier it introduced several years ago — deeply low-income households, whose incomes are half that.

Housing affordability for both, as generally means costing no more than 30% of income. So, for example, a family with one full-time, year round worker paid the federal minimum wage would have a gross income of $15,080 and thus could afford, at most, $377 a month for rent.

Acute Affordable Rental Shortage

As of 2014, the survey year NLIHC has used, there were roughly 10.4 million ELI households in the country — 24% of all renters. They could hope to rent, at an affordable rate only 3.2 million units. Virtually no affordable units for the DLIs — just about 700,000.

The shortage is surely greater than what NLIHC could report because the Census Bureau survey it uses doesn’t reach homeless people. So what we have instead are households that did rent, but mainly way above what they could afford.

Nearly three-quarters of the ELIs were severely cost-burdened, i.e. spent more than half their income for rent, plus basic utilities. A mere 7% of the DLIs weren’t so cost-burdened — not to say they weren’t cost-burdened at all, however.

Far From Enough Money Left Over for Other Needs

We can readily fathom what the cost burdens mean. Our minimum wage worker family would have, after payroll taxes, no more than $590 a month and change for all other expenses.

Low-income households with, at most, 50% of their income left spent, on average, 38% less for food and 55% less for health care than comparable households without cost burdens, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reports. Those most likely to face such trade-offs are households with children and seniors well past retirement age.

Not hard to see the long-term health consequences —  and others for those children, e.g., reluctance to form trusting relationships, lags in learning the basic skills schools measure.

These and others put them at higher risk for poverty as adults, perpetuating the cycle of severe cost burdens — or worse.

Many Shortage Drivers

Both NLIHC and the Joint Center cite diverse reasons for the affordable housing shortage, e.g., foreclosures during the recession, a broader preference for renting, developers’ understandable preference for units they can charge much more for.

At the same time, rental units subsidized by Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) project-based vouchers, i.e., those that cover all but 30% of rent, plus basic utilities for specific units, are disappearing far faster than they’re being replaced.

NLIHC cites a nationwide loss of 46,000 such units over the last decade — some demolished, others no longer affordable because the contracts that bound the owners to keep their rents within the limits HUD set expired.

Add to these roughly 150,000 public housing units lost — most, though not all for ELI households. The Joint Center estimates the loss at 10,000 every year.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed federal funding for major repairs and renovations. A study for HUD estimated the total funding need for such capital investments at more than $25.6 billion in 2010.

The total grows annually at roughly $3.4 billion, as costs rise, more units deteriorate and deteriorated units get worse, leading ultimately housing losses, but perhaps in the meantime units egregiously below any reasonable standard.

Since the 2013 across-the board budget cuts, funding for capital investments has remained virtually flat at about $1.9 billion. This isn’t the only reason so many units became so unlivable that public housing authorities closed them. NLIHC cites others, but the bottom line is lost units affordable for ELI and DLI households.

The supply-demand dynamic includes another factor. Higher-income households live in nearly half the units the ELIs could afford. If the ELIs could actually move into those units, the gap would shrink by about 2.6 million.

Now this is only one side of the story, of course. If you’ve got more income, you can afford more for housing. But incomes generally aren’t keeping pace with rent increases — quite the contrary. While rents rose, on average 7% between 2001 and 2014, incomes dropped 9%.

This average includes households that had plenty of money. Those in the bottom fifth, where we’d find the ELIs and DLIs had to cope with losses through at least 2015. Sparse federal housing assistance for them. Only about a quarter of low-income households get any at all.

This is perhaps especially notable because Congress has restored and supplemented the funding needed to offset the cut that caused public housing authorities to withhold or cancel nearly 60,000 unused tenant-based vouchers, i.e., the kind recipients can use to rent at market rates and still pay only 30% of their income.

We’ve got policy remedies, as well as reasons for the gap. But at this point, we can foresee threats to even sustaining current funding levels. More than I can do any justice to here.

But since this is supposed to be a policy-focused blog, I’ll return to them shortly.


House Republicans Unveil Reverse Robin Hood Healthcare Plan

February 27, 2017

House Speaker Paul Ryan and his lead colleagues have generated even more news about the Republicans’ plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Still no legislation. Still spare details. And still, it seems, no genuine consensus, though a large majority now understand that simply repealing the ACA would be a disaster politically, as well as for the 20 million or so Americans who’ve gained health insurance coverage since the law kicked in.

Ryan, however, has released a policy brief that purports to set out the major elements of the House Republicans’ repeal-replace plan.

Needless to say, it aims to radically cut federal spending on health care. Beyond that, a New York Times headline captures the major thrust: “Republican Health Care Proposal Would Redirect Money From Poor to Rich.”

Here briefly are the major changes and how they’d make the shift. Long post, but on one of the biggest immediate threats to the well-being of low and moderate-income people in this country and our common — though obviously not universal — concept of equity.

End of Medicaid As We Know It

Many concerned parties, including yours truly, have animadverted before about Ryan’s plans to convert Medicaid to a block grant.

Basically, states would no longer receive partial reimbursements for the costs they incur in providing health care to the poor and near-poor people they’ve enrolled. They’d instead receive a fixed sum of money, coupled with even fewer requirements and restrictions on what they can do.

We can predict from the fate of other block grants that the fixed sum will either remain the same, regardless of increases in the number of very low-income people in need — or grow somewhat, but not enough to not enough to benefit everyone eligible or who would have been had the block grant not been created.

Ryan’s new plan includes this option, but leans toward a variation — per capita grants. These too use a formula to set states’ funding, but it’s based on the regular federal match that each received in a base year for people in specific categories, e.g., children, people with disabilities.

The grants would increase, based on the inflation rate. But the rate, as commonly measured, reflects the prices of goods and services consumers commonly pay for, e.g., food, fuel, housing, with medical expenses merely folded in.

As we all know, health care costs rise more. And they’re projected to rise considerably higher, boosted by aging baby boomers, new, high-priced drugs and other drivers.

In short, same basic result, achieved by something with less tarnished name — and with a further, predicable cost-shift to all the states and the District of Columbia that have expanded their Medicaid programs.

Specifically, the plan would fold in repeal of the higher federal government match for newly-eligible people enrolled in Medicaid programs. States would continue to have the it for some unspecified time so as “not to pull the rug out from” them or beneficiaries.

The rug would, however, be immediately pulled out from under adults deemed able to work, regardless of whether they do, but at a very low wage — or have any reasonable prospects of landing a non-poverty wage job.

Redirected Tax Credits

Under the current law, people who buy health insurance on an exchange get a tax credit that serves as a subsidy if their annual income is less than 400% of the federal poverty line — currently $97,400 for a four-person family. The subsidy goes directly to the company that provides the insurance the beneficiary chooses.

It’s greatest for those in the lowest income bracket and diminishes till it reaches the highest. So it ensures that very low-income people can afford comprehensive health insurance, while not spending federal money on people in upper-income brackets.

The Ryan plan would instead award tax credits directly to people who have no employer-sponsored health insurance or coverage under a government program.

They’d would be based only on age, with larger (unspecified) credits to older people. As the Times column suggests, this would seem to make some sense, since older people tend to need more medical care.

But it means is that some very wealthy people would get a larger benefit than many of the very poor, who not only need more help in affording health insurance, but often have more health care problems.

Expanded Health Savings Accounts

Our current system already offers people opportunities to sock money away tax-free for specific medical and dental needs by putting it into a Health Savings Account.

As with the better-known Individual Retirement Accounts, you can save only up to a maximum in any given year, but the cap is based on age, when you become eligible and the type of insurance you have (see below), rather than age and taxable earnings.

You’re not required to withdraw any money during a given year. So what you’ve invested continues to grow, assuming it’s invested well and that administrative costs don’t offset real-dollar gains.

And you don’t have to pay income taxes when you withdraw, if you spend the money for approved healthcare purposes — another difference from an IRA.

The biggest difference, however, is that you have to expose yourself and your family to budget and/or health risks because you can’t have an HSA unless your insurance plan is a high deductible, i.e., covers only what are sometimes referred to as catastrophic costs.

Current federal rules, for example, allow insurance companies to require high-deductible customers to pay as much as $7,850 for an individual or $15,700 for a family before they start covering costs.

HSAs are thus obviously beneficial to some people who can afford what they and any dependent family members need and still have money left over because they’ll owe less at tax time. But only those who can stash enough to cover thousands of dollars of healthcare costs.

The Ryan plan would allow people to contribute their maximum out-of-pockets to their HSAs. Another provision would allow spouses to contribute all or part of so-called catch-up contributions, i.e. those made in a given year to compensate for lower than maximum contributions previously.

Conservatives, including lead Congressional Republicans have long argued that healthcare costs would drop if people had “more skin in the game,” i.e., more to save or lose depending on whether they choose to seek health care and, if so, what sort and from whom.

This, as I think everybody knows, is profoundly unrealistic. We’ve neither the knowledge nor, in many cases, the time to choose healthcare services the way we choose, for example, large-screen TVs.

It’s nevertheless the theory underpinning the HSA expansion, with its inherent push toward high-deductible plans. And again, it’s effectively spending more on well-off people — in this case, by forfeiting tax revenues.

Undermining the ACA Before Full Repeal

Long as this post is, I haven’t covered all parts of the plan — most notably, the full repeal part.

Sufficeth it to say that it would roil the insurance market — by immediately eliminating the penalty for having no insurance, for example, and the penalty imposed on larger employers that don’t cover most of their full-time workers.

So if Obamacare isn’t failing now — as the policy brief misleadingly says it is — it surely would during the transition period the brief promises.

NOTE: Last Friday, two insider news sources posted a leaked draft of the House Republicans’ legislation. It generally tracks the measures I’ve summarized.


Social Security Administration Backs Off Text Messaging Mandate

August 16, 2016

Turns out I was far from the only one upset by the Social Security Administration’s decision to block access to online accounts for people without text-enabled cell phones. The Tennessean reports that the agency faced such a backlash that it’s made the extra protection optional.

“The policy impacted not only those who don’t text message, but also people who live in rural areas with limited cell phone service,” says a Congress member who represents one of those areas.

Two other Tennessee Congress members weigh in too. We can, I think, assume that SSA heard from a broader swath of members, responding to constituents’ concerns — and from other quarters too.

The agency hasn’t yet told us online account users that we don’t have to have text messaging. Presumably it will. And we’ll reportedly have another way to ensure that we’re the people accessing our accounts within six months.

So all’s well that ends well, assuming that the new option doesn’t impose other burdens. We’ll nevertheless endure long wait times when we need services only staff can provide. Nothing SSA can do about that.

 


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

June 20, 2016

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.


Not All Single Mothers Are Alike … or All Really Single

May 5, 2016

Mother’s Day weekend seems a good time for another post on single mothers — a topic that consistently brings more Googlers to my blog than almost any other.

I’m taking a different approach than I did in the past because much of what one finds in public sources is muddled — and so the solution wrong-headed.

We see right-wing conservatives still promoting marriage as a key to ending poverty. And not only them. The center-left Brookings Institution joined with the center-right American Enterprise Institute to produce an anti-poverty plan. It too endorses promoting marriage.

Both the muddle and the marriage promotion stem in part from the same source — a conflation of single motherhood with unplanned out-of-wedlock births. They also reflect some incontrovertible data and some controversial studies linking single-parent families to bad outcomes for kids.

The data come from the Census Bureau. Year after year, it reports far higher percents of single-mother families in poverty than married couples with minor-age children in the same financial straits.

The assumption then is that single mothers and their children would be better off if married. Which leads to the further assumption that single mothers became mothers without first marrying — and did so accidentally. Neither reflects the realities of our society — perhaps even less than in the past.

We’ve got research now, for example, that flips cause and effect. Kathryn Edin, who actually lived in poor communities and got to know women there, found that they would have chosen marriage if they’d found a suitable spouse — specifically, a reliable, clean-living, nonviolent breadwinner. Severe shortage, as Edin explains.

The women had children anyway because they wanted them and saw no point in delaying motherhood, feeling they’d be poor no matter what. Children, in fact, satisfied a felt need for meaning in life.

I want, however, to focus on the second pair of assumptions. As my title suggests, not all single mothers are alike. That is, they’re not all single and mothers for the same reasons. And, as it also suggests, they’re not all single — at least, from their point of view.

First off, single mothers include those who got divorced or became widows and didn’t remarry. Many, but far from all live in poverty — because they’re not getting much, if anything by way of child support, in the former cases, or Social Security benefits for their children, in the latter.

Some would be no better off if they still had a husband in the house. Nor would their children. We still see the term “deadbeat dads” used to refer to absent fathers who choose not to pay child support.

But live-in husbands can be deadbeats too. Guys who could, but don’t work or even try to. Guys who do work, but use what they earn to buy alcohol, drugs, fancy clothes for themselves, etc. So the home is rife with stress and anger — violence too perhaps. The children suffer. The mom opts for peace and control of the cash flow.

Then we’ve got mothers who aren’t legally married, but live with a partner in a relationship that’s for all intents and purposes a marriage, though with the advantages our laws confer on spouses.

We’ve got more so-called cohabiting couples now than even a generation ago. This, it seems, is at least in part because young adults no longer view marriage as a “cornerstone,” but as a “capstone” — something to postpone until they’re sure they’re ready and “have all their ducks lined up.”

But they’re not delaying parenthood. The share of births to cohabiting mothers increased from 6% in the early 1980s to 25% in 2009-13, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.

It distinguishes these mothers from single mothers, but they’re officially single nonetheless. They’re different, the Center for American Progress says, because cohabitation is typically “a transitional stage” — either a prelude to a first marriage or an interlude before a second.

That may be more than case now than it was only a few years ago because same-sex couples can now legally marry. Still, we need to recognize lesbians in long-standing domestic relationships who chose to become mothers.

They’re not the only single women who became mothers by choice. As you may have read, the teen birthrate is dropping. At the same time, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among women 35 and older has risen.

We know anecdotally that some wanted to have children for quite awhile and figured that marriage just wasn’t in the cards — or that it wasn’t what they wanted before their biological clock ticked further past their prime childbearing years.

So, for them, a sort of planned parenthood we don’t ordinarily think of when we hear the term — thanks to the wonders of medical technology.

Other women in their mid-thirties become single mothers in a different way. A dear friend of mine, for example, wanted to raise a child, saw no prospect of marriage and discovered she was infertile.

So she adopted a baby left with an agency by a mother who couldn’t care for him, confident that she had the financial and personal resources, including a close-knit family to give him a secure, loving childhood.

Another single woman I know — the successful head of her own professional services firm — recently a adopted a baby for similar reasons. They’re not the only single women who’ve made this choice — some, in fact, when considerably older.

Our country does a lousy job of supporting mothers — and to that extent, a lousy job of supporting children in any sort of family. An especially lousy job of supporting single mothers and their children, as their unusually high poverty rates indicate.

Single mothers, unlike their married counterparts, still get a bad rap for having failed to exercise personal responsibility, driving up safety-net costs, crime and other social ills.

I’d rather celebrate them in all their variety. Better, I think, than conceding Mother’s Day to Hallmark, Teleflora and the perfume and candy purveyors.