When it comes to child support, the news media just can’t seem to get it right. In the case of this particularly scurrilous article, that may be because the writer didn’t bother to ask anyone without an ax to grind about the facts (CNN, 11/5/12).
It’s a familiar tale; “deadbeat” fathers who are fully capable of paying the support they owe, but just don’t, drive long-suffering mothers into poverty by their callous indifference to their children. So desperate is the writer, Steve Hargreaves, to make the point that he actually says this:
To get out of paying, deadbeats will often take work in the underground economy to shield their income. Family courts are rife with tales where men with off-the-books jobs cry poor mouth to the judge, only to drive away in a Mercedes.Some of us thought the days of the “welfare Cadillac” died with Reagan, but apparently not. Actual fathers, like the destitute ones denied counsel and sent to prison for non-payment never make it into Hargreaves’ screed.
The reason for the article is to report the fact that some $108 billion is now owed in child support and that almost half of that is owed to “the taxpayers” for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families payments to poor mothers. That’s the latest information from the Office of Child Support Enforcement, and true enough, I suppose. But somehow Hargreaves manages to miss what I would have thought would be an obvious point – that if the mothers are poor enough to be on TANF, the chances are good that the fathers of their children aren’t very well off either. They are, therefore, not so much unwilling as unable to pay.
And since he’s aware of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, he could have gone to its website and obtained information about the financial state of fathers who are behind on their payments. Had he done so, he’d have learned that some 63% of child support debtors report earning less than $10,000 a year. And those figures come from 2008. With the recession, those dad’s finances have surely gotten worse. But to Hargreaves, just like his sole expert, Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law Center, non-payment means you’re a deadbeat.
She’s the one Hargreaves relies on for the proposition that single mothers’ living in poverty is all the fault of deadbeat dads.
For poor mothers, child support payments represent 45% of their income, said Entmacher. Deadbeats are a big reason why 41% of households headed by single women are below the poverty level — twice that for households headed by single men and nearly five times that for married couples.
Single Mother Poverty Not the Fault of Dads, Child SupportNo, actually the reason single mothers are so likely to live below the poverty line is that they themselves don’t earn enough to keep them and their children out of those dire straits. I know this because of a couple of bits of data that, since they don’t fit his thesis, Hargreaves simply ignored. First, single fathers with children earn over 50% more than do single mothers with children. As single parents, those fathers have to do all the things to care for their kids that mothers do, so it’s not that they have more time to work and earn, they don’t. They just earn more – enough more to, on average, keep them and their children out of poverty.
Second, fathers’ greater earnings don’t result from greater child support payments by non-custodial mothers. Far from it. A casual glance at Census Bureau data would have told Hargreaves that non-custodial mothers are far less likely to be ordered to pay child support at all and, when they are, they’re ordered to pay less than are their male counterparts. Even at that, they pay a lower percentage of what they’re ordered to pay than do non-custodial fathers. Single fathers aren’t relying on the beneficence of the non-custodial mothers of their children.
So neither single fathers’ greater earnings nor single mothers’ greater likelihood of poverty can be explained by child support payments or the lack thereof. The uncomfortable fact is that if single mothers worked more, they’d earn more and drag themselves and their kids out of poverty. Studies done in England show exactly the same thing – that single mothers are under-involved in paid employment. Joan Entmacher will never let on about the fact, so Hargreaves and his readers remain in the dark, preferring the anti-father narrative we’ve come to know so well.
Nor does Hargreaves betray the slightest knowledge that all that debt isn’t child support, but interest on arrears. Different states charge different amounts, with some charging as high as 10%. Likewise, some states compound the interest yearly and one, Colorado compounds it monthly. With sky-high rates and frequent compounding, it doesn’t take long for a parent who’s fallen behind to face a mountain of debt with no hope of repayment. In California for example, about 27% of its child support arrears consists of nothing but interest. That phenomenon can result in a father who’s fallen behind starting to pay the full amount ordered, but still seeing his arrears building up and up.
Buried at the very end of his piece, Hargreaves admits that putting fathers in prison while their child support debt builds up doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a pale glimmer of common sense in an otherwise dreadful article.
The facts of child support are actually pretty simple and well-known. First, family court judges set support levels too high; the OCSE admits this. When fathers fall behind, states make it as difficult as possible for them to get a hearing for a modification. When they do, the dads find that a downward modification is devilishly hard to obtain. Courts expect fathers to bankrupt themselves before they’ll order a modification. The recent Michigan Supreme Court case defining the defense of impossibility gives a good idea of what fathers have to do to get a break on child support.
Then there’s the well-known fact that mothers who don’t interfere with visitation are much more likely to receive child support and a greater percentage of it than those who do. So what does the federal government do? Having acknowledged the beneficial effects of visitation, it then spends $5 billion a year to enforce child support and essentially nothing ($10 million) to enforce visitation. Family courts, in their turn, show little interest in enforcing visitation orders, with the unsurprising result that dads sometimes don’t pay out of resentment.
And of course states do everything imaginable to prevent fathers from paying. Fall behind and you’ll find your drivers license and other occupational licenses suspended. Fall further behind and you’ll find yourself in jail. All those things make earning and paying harder, not easier, but states enact the laws anyway and then wonder why dads don’t pay.
If there’s anything about the child support system that makes sense, it’s escaped my notice. Come to think of it, I can say the same thing about Steve Hargreaves’ article.