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April 27, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

But all is not darkness at the New York Times. Its forum on child support and its enforcement features two articles that actually make some sense by writers who seem to know the basics of the subject.

This one, by Kenneth Braswell, Executive Director of Fathers Incorporated, has some good ideas about how to reform a system that’s dysfunctional in too many ways to ignore (New York Times, 4/23/15). His suggestions for reform are (a) stop taking child support payments to reimburse states for payments to custodial parents under the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program, (b) set support orders at levels non-custodial parents can actually pay, (c) make downward modifications easier to obtain, (d) offer meaningful job training to non-custodial parents and (e) only incarcerate parents who are able to pay what they owe, but refuse to.

Frankly, only (a) is the least bit controversial. The rest are little more than basic common sense. The Office of Child Support Enforcement has long begged states to set orders at reasonable levels, and the procedure for obtaining downward modifications should be made easy and inexpensive enough that poor, uneducated parents can manage it on their own. Jail should be the very last resort and, as Braswell says, should not be used to punish parents who haven’t paid because they can’t.

On that last point, Braswell quotes a telling statistic from the OCSE.

The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement itself has said that “the average incarcerated parent with a child support case has $10,000 in arrears when entering state prison, and leaves with $20,000 in arrears. Not only is this debt unlikely to ever be collected, but it adds to the barriers formerly incarcerated parents face in reentering their communities.”

Most sentient beings understand that incarceration of the parent means the child will receive no support for the duration of the parent’s time in jail, that arrears will only increase and that a valuable job may well be lost in the process. In short, nothing about incarceration makes sense if, as we claim, our aim is to increase the amount of support children receive. Incarceration does the opposite.

The increasingly faint and rare claim that incarceration encourages parents to pay what they owe has been proven to be false. It doesn’t. That’s because the parents incarcerated are usually those who can’t pay and those who can’t pay, well, can’t pay. It matters little if jail is the result of nonpayment; the prospect of jail does not print money or create jobs.

As to Braswell’s main point — that child support should no longer go to reimburse states for welfare benefits paid to custodial parents, it’s an idea with considerable merit. The same issue is a prominent topic in Canada. Obviously, allowing that support money to go to the custodial parent instead of the state would increase the parent’s income that, one would hope, would go to support the child. One of the major sticking points for fathers is the fact that they know their payments won’t go to their children. That’s a powerful disincentive for fathers, the great majority of whom truly want to support their children, to pay. Why take hard-earned money out of your pocket when you know it’s going into the coffers of some giant, impersonal governmental agency?

So passing the money to the kids would both enhance the likelihood of payment and increase the support the custodial parent’s income.

The downside to Braswell’s idea of course is that there is absolutely no impetus for states to simply say “no thanks” to the hundreds of millions of dollars a year they recoup from non-custodial parents. Asking states to do that is a losing proposition and, short of a new federal statute, I don’t expect to see it happening.

The final piece on the child support forum is by Jacquelyn Boggess of the Center for Family Policy and Practice (New York Times, 4/23/15). She makes a sound point I haven’t seen before, one that’s perfectly obvious but nevertheless unmentioned.

The system is a standardized, computerized procedure to collect and disburse money. It’s not a social welfare agency that matches service to needs. Federal and state law requires it to facilitate wage withholding for on-time payment, and seizure of bank accounts, suspension of licenses and levies of property when child support payment is in arrears.

This is because federal law requires states to retain money collected on behalf of the poorest families — current and former welfare recipients — as reimbursement for welfare cash benefits.

The system is structurally unable to account for chronic unemployment or dire poverty of noncustodial parents. The agency assesses debt in full knowledge that some parents have no assets, no income, no job and no prospects.

Right. The child support system is, first and foremost, a system for collecting money, primarily to reimburse states for welfare expenditures. It’s a huge debt-collection agency. As such, it cares little about improving child support orders, job prospects, visitation for non-custodial parents or downward modifications of orders due to changed circumstances. Its purpose is collecting money.

Regardless of race, income level, marital status or gender, most parents want to support and inspire their children, and the current system cannot help the poorest, most disadvantaged families reach those goals.

Now, of course that’s overstating the matter. There are job-training programs and in some states minimal pass-through of child support to mothers who’ve received welfare benefits is permitted. But in the main, Boggess has a point.

And what we should learn from it is that, if we want a sensible system, one that does its best to support kids, we’ll design and implement a far different one than we have now. Trying to squeeze money out of parents who have few work skills or experience is a losing proposition. Putting those parents in jail doesn’t help, it hurts. So Boggess urges us to step up efforts to make employable those who currently aren’t.

But her prescription, like Braswell’s suggestion that states forego welfare reimbursement is almost hardly likely to ever become public policy.

The system should include focused services to help mothers and fathers, custodial and noncustodial parents, gain economic stability. In addition to a better Earned-Income Tax Credit policy that recognizes that both parents support children, parents will need connections to job training and employment services, and earning and income supplements while they train. In fact all of the social support services that we tried to, or meant to provide for single parents should be improved for custodial parents and extended to noncustodial parents. Both parents need health care, legal services and housing assistance and earning supplements.

That type of Great Society program of massive government spending has no chance of enactment. My guess is that most of it has no business as public policy. In the past those types of programs have demonstrated a marked tendency to make bad situations worse and occasionally to create entirely new and expensive problems. Few doubt the disastrous effects of welfare policy on the black family, once so stable, that’s now a poster child for how not to raise children.

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but if we established equal parenting as the norm post-divorce, a whole range of serious social issues could be addressed. One of those is child support.

Let’s say we establish that, to properly support little Andy or Jenny requires $1,000 per month. Let’s also assume that, following their divorce, Mom has the child 60% of the time with Dad having 40% of the parenting time. That means Mom incurs $600 in expenses while Dad incurs $400 just by virtue of the child’s presence in their home. If Dad pays Mom $100, they both bear the same financial burden of raising their child, which is as it should be. If the tyke has a medical emergency or some other unexpected or special need for money, the two should bear the cost equally.

Currently, many states and nations make assumptions about the cost of raising a child that are utterly at odds with reality. Interestingly those assumptions invariably result in larger, not smaller, levels of support. They often go on to assume that the non-custodial parent bears no cost of the child’s care despite the child living with the parent for substantial periods of time. And finally, support guidelines often ignore the balance of time spent with each parent, pretending that the non-custodial parent has the child not at all.

Those and other assumptions are false and should be done away with. But what’s obvious about adopting shared parenting and acknowledging the expenses incurred by both parents is that, overall, child support levels would come down drastically. That would mean far fewer parents who can’t or don’t pay, plus all the other benefits of shared parenting. Children would be better cared for and state support enforcement bureaucracies would wither to mere vestiges of their current selves.

What’s not to like?

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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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