April 24, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Having published a couple of fact-based articles about the child support system that are also sympathetic to fathers, the editors at the New York Times just couldn’t resist. As they often do on other topics, they followed up with one of their forums called “Room for Debate,” in which they invite a few people with differing viewpoints to comment on the subject in question. That’s a fair approach, but all too often results in a “The Earth: Flat or Spherical?” type of debate. Of course we all value principled disagreement, but in some matters, some arguments just don’t have the heft that others do.
Exhibit A is the piece by Ellen Eubanks of the National Child Support Enforcement Association (New York Times, 4/23/15). It’s entitled “The Child Support System Can be Tough, But it’s Fair.” In it she demonstrates little but her own profound lack of understanding of how non-custodial parents experience the system. Has she ever read any personal story of a father trying to deal with the child support system? The stories are legion, so there’s no reason why not, but the happy gloss she puts on the whole thing strongly suggests a person who either doesn’t know those bitter realities or doesn’t care.
Has she read anything by attorneys like Georgia’s Sarah Geraghty who describe the scene in child support court where men with no money and less than a high school diploma are processed like sardines, i.e. as ruthlessly and as rapidly as possible?
Eubanks’ take on child support — its establishment and enforcement — goes something like this: whatever the mistakes of the past, the system has pretty much cleaned up its act so that no non-custodial parent need fear jail or other serious punishment for failure to pay. No, really. So, for example, here’s her only nod toward the issue of incarceration for child support indebtedness.
[A]gencies today recognize that incarcerating parents for nonpayment can be counterproductive to its mission of supporting families.
Do they indeed? Then how does Eubanks explain the astonishing levels of incarceration for failure to pay? What about the one-eighth of all inmates in the State of South Carolina who are inside because they didn’t pay everything they owed? As countless commentators, including the Office of Child Support Enforcement have pointed out, there’s no evidence that incarceration increases levels of payment and much that it has the opposite effect. Eubanks would like readers to believe that, because that’s now a well-known fact, states don’t incarcerate anymore. To say that’s a blatant misrepresentation of reality is putting it mildly. Sarah Geraghty could set her straight, but she’s probably in court fighting a lonely battle for some poor guy who’s had the awesome weight of the state child support enforcement system fall on him.
And, speaking of lawyers, Eubanks never gets around to mentioning that poor parents in child support court aren’t entitled to one. Custodial parents can turn to the office of the state attorney general for their legal representation, but not non-custodial ones. Yes, most states offer legal assistance to those who can prove they’re indigent, but if they’re just poor, well, they have to fend for themselves. That’s what Eubanks calls “fair.”
The poor? The only poor people Eubanks is interested in are custodial parents whom she rightly identifies as disproportionately living in poverty. Of course she doesn’t mention the fact that their receipt or non-receipt of child support isn’t the reason for their poverty. Had she take five minutes out of her day to look at some easy-to-read data from the U.S. Census Bureau, she’d know that non-custodial mothers pay far less in child support than do non-custodial fathers, but custodial fathers are far less likely to live in poverty than custodial mothers. If child support were the issue in poverty, it’d be the other way around. But Eubanks isn’t interested.
She’s also not interested in the by-now-well-known fact that, according to the OCSE, some 63% of non-custodial parents behind on their payments report earning less than $10,000 per year. Just how those parents are supposed to support themselves, much less their children, Eubanks doesn’t let on, probably because she, like they, has no idea. How does she understand fathers who owe 85% of their net pay to their ex-wives? Does she seriously believe they can pay that and remain alive themselves? Many of these men have been driven onto the street by child support debt. Eubanks calls that “fair.”
In her world, if an order is set higher than a parent can pay or he loses his job, it’s no problem.
For obligors needing assistance, most states offer programs to assist them, ranging from G.E.D. attainment to job training to substance abuse counseling.
Problem solved! Let’s see. A man has a child support order that was set too high in the first place. So he falls behind. Then he loses his job, so he can’t afford to pay anything at all. Month after month, his debt goes up and up. According to Eubanks, spending a couple of years in a G.E.D. program is all it takes to set matters aright. Of course, during those couple of years, his debt keeps piling up. Chances are good the state will incarcerate him, destroying his chances of completing the program. How does that help him? How is that fair? Is his child better off?
Of course job training, G.E.D. programs and the like are fine things, but they have little impact on a man’s experience of a system that cares about little else than money. Pay what you owe when you owe it and generally you’re OK. But the judge doesn’t want to hear about how hard you’re trying; he/she wants to hear about how much you’ve paid. Period.
That’s because of another little fact of life Eubanks doesn’t care to mention — the federal government’s financial incentives to states that reward collections and nothing else. The Office of Child Support Enforcement that pays out $5 billion per year to states for support collected, pays not one thin dime for parents who are trying to better their education, have enrolled in substance abuse programs or are studying for their G.E.D. That’s why the judges don’t care either; for support collected, the state gets paid; for everything else it gets zilch. Again, Eubanks has no interest.
Ah yes, interest; another minor oversight on her part. Until very recently, states charged interest on indebtedness up to 12% per annum. Ten percent was common. Those usurious rates were charged poor fathers at a time when T-Bills were paying barely legible rates, well below 1%. Although most of those scandalously high rates have come down to about half of what they were (i.e. still far higher than rates on most other debt instruments), many fathers are still saddled with debts that reflect those rates. Again, Eubanks finds this “fair.”
Yet another issue that non-custodial parents grapple with, mostly without success, is that of getting to see their kids. Characteristically, the one sentence Eubanks devotes to the issue gets it backwards. Social science demonstrates that, when custodial parents don’t interfere with visitation, non-custodial parents are far more likely to pay what they owe. Eubanks reads the science in reverse. But what she of course never mentions is the dramatic difference between federal child support efforts ($5 billion per year) versus Washington’s cursory nod toward enforcement of visitation orders ($10 million per year). But to Eubanks, it’s all “fair.”
Of course it’s not. Indeed, it’s not even rational. Even if our sole concern were wringing money out of fathers, enforcing visitation promotes that end, and so we should devote considerable energy to doing so. Even people as ignorant as current Governor and former Attorney General of Texas Greg Abbott agree with that simple concept. But Eubanks doesn’t mention it.
Eubanks is a flat-earther. Alone, apparently in the entire country, she looks at the child support system and finds it “fair.” Not even the OCSE, the federal agency tasked with enforcing child support orders agrees with her. Its commissioner, Vicki Turetsky has often made the case for substantial reform, much of which promises to be put into practice this summer. Until then, publications like the Times should try to figure out what the real issues are about child support. The notion that it’s “fair” isn’t one of them.
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