December 22, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The news media continue to ignore important aspects of the most recent report by the Bureau of the Census on parents with and without custody and the child support they pay and receive. Here’s the latest example (Tampa Tribune, 12/20/13). And here’s the report (Census Bureau, 10/13).
There are a good many salient features of the report that could and probably should provide a guide to policy making regarding child support, but the writer of the article, Gary Pinnell, notices few of them.
In the first place, he’s focused on the local Florida situation and recites that about one-third of the child support owed in the area doesn’t get paid. He then asks “Why doesn’t FDOR (Florida Department of Revenue) enforce the law?”
Of course the FDOR does enforce the law, albeit not as effectively as a lot of people might like. But Pinnell’s assumption is that, if the law were enforced properly, most child support would be paid. That’s just not true as the Office of Child Support Enforcement documents have consistently showed. The simple truth is that child support orders are routinely set above what non-custodial parents can pay. That’s done because the more child support a state collects, the more it gets paid by the federal government. So orders are set high in the hopes the state can demonstrate greater collections.
But that often just means non-custodial parents can’t pay what they owe and, nationwide, year after year, the arrearages go up and up. The OCSE has issued pleas to family court judges before to start setting orders at levels non-custodial parents can actually pay, but to no avail. Gary Pinnell knows none of this. Nor does he know that vast portions of what’s owed represent, not child support, but interest on unpaid balances. That runs to 12% per annum in some states, 10% in others. Still others are a bit more reasonable at 6% and 5%.
Whatever the rate in any given state, it’s still higher than anyone can get on any investment more reliable than junk bonds. Why do states imagine that fathers who can’t pay the support ordered can somehow pay interest higher than what’s offered by the most prosperous investment firms?
The answer is they know perfectly well the dads can’t pay. The outlandish interest levies are all of a piece with the practice of jailing fathers who can’t pay (often without a lawyer to represent them), taking away their licenses to operate motor vehicles, professional and occupational licenses and passports. None of that helps children and most of it makes it more difficult for non-custodial parents to pay what they owe or even anything.
This is well-known and nothing but common sense, but states do it anyway, not because it helps custodial parents or children, but because it satisfies their sense of a need for retribution against fathers who are presumed to be uncaring and irresponsible toward their children.
Again, Pinnell evinces not the slightest knowledge of these pertinent facts.
Not content with ignorance of his subject, Pinnell moves on to frank misrepresentation of it.
A U.S. Census Bureau Report shows some non-custodial parents are adept at gaming the system.
No, actually it doesn’t. In fact, it says nary a word on the subject of “gaming the system.”
The rest of Pinnell’s article is basically a laundry list of data quoted from the report and therefore, as far as it goes, presents an accurate picture of who pays and who owes child support.
But like other writers on the subject, Pinnell misses the glaringly obvious – that non-custodial fathers are significantly more likely to pay some or all of what they owe than are mothers, that custodial mothers are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as custodial fathers (despite receiving more in child support) and that non-custodial mothers are barely more than half as likely to be ordered to pay support as are their male counterparts.
As far as policy-making goes, the fact that children who live with their fathers are far less likely to live in poverty is the datum that most strongly militates in favor of change. One of the basic facts of child well-being is that money matters. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s important. Greater affluence is associated with a range of better outcomes such as better emotional health, better educational results, better health, and the like.
Custodial fathers earn on average over 50% more than do custodial mothers, meaning that their kids live in more affluent family environments. (Again, that’s true despite the fact that non-custodial mothers are far more likely to pay nothing at all and, when they do pay, pay less than non-custodial fathers.) Even if we didn’t know about the many benefits fathers confer on children, the simple fact that single fathers with children earn more than single mothers with children is a powerful argument for greater paternal custody than currently is ordered.
All that said, I must give credit where it’s due, and Pinnell gets one thing right. Good for him.
"The more contact a child has with the noncustodial parent, the more likely they are to be the beneficiary of the full financial support," said report author Timothy Grall, a statistician.
It’s an important point and one that’s been made for some 20 years. Sanford Braver and colleagues reported the fact in the book, Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths published in 1998 and based on previous studies. By now it’s become a routinely-accepted fact, so much so that the OCSE repeats it as do others like Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott.
The obvious policy implications of the fact that non-custodial parents with ready access to their kids pay more of what they owe would be to devote considerable resources to enforcing visitation rights. But those familiar with the minds of federal and state policy makers will not be surprised to learn that that’s the exact opposite of what occurs. In fact, states spend almost nothing to help non-custodial parents enforce their meager rights and federal policy underlines the point in red.
The OCSE budgets $5 billion per year for child support enforcement and only $10 million per year for visitation enforcement, a 500:1 ratio. In case anyone misses the point – that anything that could conceivably benefit fathers is not favored in law or public policy – federal law prohibits any of that $10 million from being used to hire attorneys to help fathers pursue their visitation remedies in court.
Meanwhile of course custodial parents (82% of whom are mothers) get attorneys free of charge courtesy of the state and reimbursed by Washington.
Anti-father/pro-mother bias doesn’t get much clearer than that.
So it’s no surprise that Pinnell, having made the point that access to children increases child support payments, moves on without once pausing to ponder the possible policy implications of the fact. In that he’s much like the OCSE and state agencies that enforce child support. They too acknowledge the fact that visitation support increases child support payments, but then ignore the clear policy consequences thereof.
If we were truly serious about child support, we’d divert a significant portion of what we now pay in child support enforcement to visitation enforcement. In so doing, we’d increase child support payments. But we don’t. We know the connection between the two, but, like Pinnell, we choose to ignore it.
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