Child support and poor families

The New York Times, in its “Room for Debate” column, recently asked, “How can child support be reformed so that children are provided for without the lives of poor families being damaged?” The Times referenced the shooting of Walter Scott by a South Carolina police officer, noting that his family, “said he may have fled for fear of being jailed for nonpayment of child support,” and stated that for poor fathers, these obligations often result in jail time “for noncompliance, making it harder for them to pay their debts and often costing them their jobs.”

Four opinions were given. Here are highlights:

Help fathers

The child support system exists “to collect and disburse money,” Jacquelyn Boggess, co-director, Center for Family Policy and Practice writes. It facilitates wage withholding and seizure of bank accounts, suspension of licenses, and more. Federal law requires states to retain money collected on behalf of the poorest families — current and former welfare recipients — as reimbursement for welfare cash benefits.

“Chronic unemployment or dire poverty” is not considered; debt is assessed knowing “that some parents have no assets, income, job or prospects … We should “recognize that some parents will need services outside and instead of the child support system.”

The system should include “services to help … parents gain economic stability” such as “a better Earned-Income Tax Credit policy, job training, employment services, and earning and income supplements while they train. Both parents need health, legal and other services.”

Not tough enough

By contrast, Kezia Willingham, a health coordinator for the Seattle public schools’ Head Start program, feels that “enforcement measures are not strong enough.”

A single parent who has raised a child with “virtually no assistance from the biological father,” Willingham has thrived. But, there were times when “even $50 a month would have been very helpful.”

The system, Willingham writes, has measures “in place to accommodate financial hardship … A non-custodial parent’s financial hardship should not absolve them of responsibilities … The custodial parent often has an even harder time.”

The government taketh

Kenneth Braswell, executive director of Fathers Incorporated, notes that child support “operates as a government cost-recovery strategy by reimbursing states and the federal government for benefits paid to mothers on behalf of children … Families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families only receive about a quarter of the child support collected on their behalf. The majority of states keep all child support collected on behalf of these families.”

Braswell believes “payments should be passed through to the custodial parent in their entirety.”

“Some fathers pay up to 65 percent of their wages in child support and arrearages,” he writes, driving “many low-income men into severe poverty.” Fathers can request a review, but many don’t know of their rights and cannot navigate the judicial process.

Fathers need “training and employment supports” to be able “to compete in this global economy … Punitive methods … like incarceration should only be used where fathers demonstrate that” they can pay, “but are unwilling to.”

Threat as incentive

National Child Support Enforcement Association executive director Colleen Eubanks writes that child support agencies “recognize that incarcerating parents for nonpayment can be counterproductive to its mission of supporting families.”

For obligors needing assistance, most states offer programs to assist them, ranging from G.E.D. attainment to job training to substance abuse counseling. Most agencies have forgiveness programs when the obligor is unable to pay a support debt owed to the state (because the children received public assistance). Child support programs now focus more on compliance than collections.

The threat of revoking the driver’s license of a noncompliant obligor actually becomes an incentive to negotiate a payment plan. When payments start coming in, more drastic enforcement approaches stop, including those leading to arrest.

The issues are complicated, and every action has consequences. What answers would you propose to reform the child support system?

New York City and Long Island-based divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer Lee Chabin helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabin@lc-mediate.com, (718) 229–6149, or go to lc-mediate.com/.

Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.