Not long ago I posted a piece on child support collections in Ohio. The astonishing figure in that state is that 70% of child support obligors are behind on their payments. As I said at the time, anyone who’s paying attention would figure out that, when that many people are behind, support levels were probably set too high in the first place. The figure also suggests that the economic debacle of the past three years has dealt a killing blow to many non-custodial parents’ ability to pay. Add to that the fact that states make it hard for non-custodial parents to get downward modifications of their support orders, and it’s no surprise that the great majority of non-custodial parents can’t pay everything they owe.
Of course those who’ve drunk the “if you haven’t paid, you’re a deadbeat” Kool-Aid prefer to believe that 70% of Ohioans just don’t care about their kids, I suppose. But those who are both less ready to judge and more interested in the truth know better.
So this article comes as no surprise (Fox10TV, 12/21/11). It’s from Alabama, and, although the statistics are a bit better there, most non-custodial parents in that state are behind on their payments as well.
Thousands of parents are fighting for child support. Nationally, more than half of people don’t receive the full payments ordered by the court. Mobile is consistent with the national average.Rose Johnson of the state’s Department of Human Resources seems to know a little bit about why so few custodial parents are receiving what courts say they should.
“The overwhelming problem is you are going to have people who are not paying,” said Johnson…“They really don’t have the ability to pay it.” I thought I’d never hear a state official speak that simple truth. We hear almost daily about law enforcement agencies conducting “sweeps” of non-paying parents. What’s seldom obvious in those reports is how little they collect. In New Jersey, the average collected is about 1% of what’s owed. Anyone who’s at all curious would conclude that Johnson is right; it’s not a problem of not wanting to support their kids, but one of inability to do so.
“What are you going to accomplish if you do jail people who have large child support debt? They really don’t have the ability to pay it. You’re not going to help them, you’re not going to help the child and if anything you’re putting a wedge between them,” said Johnson.
Much of the indebtedness could be reduced if states would adopt procedures to make downward modifications of support levels easier, quicker and cheaper. Special masters who did nothing but hear child support modifications up or down would be one obvious step. Removing all fees for filing for modification would be another and published information on the type of evidence needed to prove a case for modification would be a third.
But no state to my knowledge has done any of those things, even in this devastating recession. The unsurprising result is that indebtedness jumps up and up with each passing year.
While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that the U.S. Census Bureau came out with the latest child support figures earlier this month. The most recent data here are for 2009.
The good news is that the number of custody orders with dads as the custodial parent has rocketed skyward. In 2007, they were only 16.2% of the total; in 2009 17.8% of parents with custody orders were dads. At that rate it’ll only be 20 years before we reach equality in child custody. Break out the champagne.
What’s also true is that, even though they’re ordered to pay more than mothers, fathers do a lot better job of doing so. Fathers are ordered to pay, on average, $5,997 per year whereas mothers are only ordered to pay $5,601. Despite being ordered to pay more, fathers pay 62.8% of the ordered amount while mothers pay 54.6%. And 42% of custodial mothers receive all of what they’re owed, while only 34.1% of fathers do.
I suppose I don’t need to add that the article about the Alabama child support situation mentions none of the above except to say that 41% of custodial parents nationwide receive everything they’re owed.
Like so many other myths, that of the “deadbeat dad” seems a hard one to let go of.