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April 3, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

According to this article, the Provinces of British Columbia and Ontario (at least) are insufficiently encouraging single motherhood (Vancouver Sun, 3/31/14). The writer is Daphne Bramham and she’s in a snit about the unfairness of laws and government programs regarding state support for single mothers, child support and related topics. Specifically, she’s upset that provinces like BC demand that, when single mothers receive state income assistance (analogous to TANF in the U.S.) and also child support from Dad, his support goes first to pay off the welfare she received. In other words, it’s treated much the way welfare payments are here in the U.S.

Now, of course Bramham has one good point, albeit only one. Far “below the fold,” we find this:

Yet one of the absurd and, one hopes, unintended consequences of this 12-year-old clawback is that it acts as a disincentive to non-custodial parents to pay child support. What is the point if the money does not provide any material gain for their children?

Frustrated, paying parents — overwhelmingly fathers — have only a couple of choices.

They can be so-called “dead-beat dads” and risk prosecution. Or they can attempt to do end-runs around the government by surreptitiously handing over cash, gift cards, food, toys, clothes or school supplies.

(Allow me to digress momentarily and point out Bramham’s use of the invented term “clawback.” That’s the term she uses to describe the government’s demand that welfare recipients repay welfare amounts when they receive child support. The allusion to “nature red in fang and claw” is intentional. One imagines a ravening state beast shredding the helpless single mom in the process of cleaning out her bank account. One is meant to.)

The point is apt as far as it goes. Fathers truly concerned about their kids may seek to circumvent the usual channels and funnel money and goods to mothers so the government won’t know and can’t intervene. I’m sure that happens at least occasionally, but, I suspect, not often.

That’s because fathers owe what they owe and the government demands proof of payment. So every cash payment, every package of Huggies delivered to Mom “over the transom” is just so much additional Dad has to pay. It’s a secret, so he doesn’t get credit for making it, except in his own mind. So, while “clawback” may discourage fathers from paying the support they owe, it can’t be much of an inducement not to. And I doubt noncustodial fathers fear clawback nearly as much as they do prison, interest on arrearages, the loss of driver’s and professional licenses and all the range of other draconian punishments for non-payment.

Meanwhile, what’ really put a burr under Bramham’s saddle is that “The government says that child-support payments are part and parcel of family income. Because of that, plus the belief that families should — as much as possible — pay their own way, British Columbia claws back whatever amount the non-custodial parent pays from the lone-parent’s income assistance cheque.”

She sides with unnamed “child and youth advocates” who believe “that child-support money is meant to ensure children’s well-being and is not income support for parents…”

I hate to mention it to Bramham, but the government is right on this one. When one person or entity transfers cash or other valuable assets to another person or entity, that’s called income. And money, being fungible, can be used for anything. So when Mom gets a check from Dad or the government or anywhere else, she can use it for anything she wants. She can buy baby food, whiskey, a night on the town or pay the electric bill with it. If the province sends her a check for X and Dad sends one for Y, she now has X + Y. Somehow Bramham’s children and youth advocates think she only has X.

(As yet another aside, I feel I must come clean here and admit that, here in the United States, the Internal Revenue Service has not yet mastered this concept. Oh, it does a pretty good job of recognizing taxable income when it sees it, but when it comes to child support income, it has a rather huge blind spot. Spurning common sense and fiscal responsibility, the IRS considers child support payments to not constitute income for tax purposes. Alone (as far as I know) among all other transfers of wealth, child support paid to custodial parents is not considered income to them. Yes, we’re running trillion-dollar deficits and need every source of tax revenue we can lay our hands on, but not child support; that’s sacrosanct.)

What the various provinces are clearly doing by demanding restitution for amounts paid out in welfare is, among other things, to make living on welfare as difficult as possible. It’s meant to be something to rely on only in emergencies and not to become a state of being, the way it is for so many single mothers in the U.K. Now, we can debate the wisdom of that approach till we’re blue in the face, but that’s what the government is doing. The fact is, the government wants adults to be working, earning and paying their own way.

Bramham isn’t buying it and neither are a variety of mothers’ advocates.

And during the 2012 provincial election campaign, a coalition of child and youth advocates called First Call, West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and the Community Legal Assistance Society asked the parties to consider allowing an unearned income exemption for child-support payments.

In other words, they wanted the state to make single motherhood a still more enticing alternative for women. Bramham doesn’t want readers to get that particular message, doubtless out of concern that we’d stop reading once we did. But the family court system has plenty of incentives to mothers to abandon marriage without adding another. Hefty child support payments plus alimony that can often last a lifetime by themselves can support a mother and a child indefinitely, obviating the need to work and earn. That, plus the virtual certainty that almost any mother will get sole or primary custody of the children are all it takes for mothers to leave marriages and, if little Andy or Jenny suffers for the lack of a father, that’s their look-out.

It’s no surprise that mothers are swapping husbands and fathers for the far more generous and less demanding state. But for Bramham, et al it’s not enough. For them, nothing but the bizarre legal fiction that child support isn’t income will do.

What’s also no surprise is that it’s mothers who are Bramham’s focus. Not only are they some 90% of Canada’s custodial parents, but they’re also the most likely to have received welfare. In Canada, as in the U.S. unmarried custodial fathers manage to earn far more than do their distaff counterparts. Although I don’t know the exact figures in Canada, here in the U.S. single fathers with custody of children earn over 50% more than do single custodial mothers. Indeed, one of the surest predictors that a child will live at least some of its life in poverty is that it lives with a single mother. Do I need to point out that, if more fathers got custody, the state’s welfare bill would drop accordingly? Do I need to say that that’s just one more perversity of the family court system? I thought not.

Needless to say, in her headlong drive to get more and more Canadian children into single-mother households, Bramham discreetly overlooks all this. Common sense is of no more interest to her than fairness in family courts or the well-being of children. Her interest is single mothers, how we can create more of them and reward them for separating children from their fathers.

Fortunately, lawmakers aren’t listening.

In B.C., none of the parties took up the cause at the time (in 2012), and Premier Christy Clark’s Liberals have not changed the policy.

I suppose it must be something about draining the treasury to remove ever greater numbers of children from their fathers that proved a bit of a turn-off to the provincial legislature. Who’d have guessed?

National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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