February 22, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Steve Fischer’s disgraceful screed in the Texas Tribune, about which I wrote yesterday, combines astonishing ignorance of his chosen subject – child support and those who owe arrears – with a snide attitude towards the poor. It’s a bad combination. It’s so bad in fact that I couldn’t deal with all its deficiencies in a single post.
Once he’s finished being entertained by parents under arrest for not paying child support, Fischer eventually gets down to the business at hand – congratulating the lawyers of the Texas Attorney General’s Office on the job they do collecting arrears.
Now, as I said yesterday, Fischer’s happy to overlook the cases in Texas in which the AG’s Office tags a man for support of a child who’s not his and, having done so, continue to dun him even though his non-paternity has been established and is well known. I’ve pointed out before that nothing in the world prevents those legal stalwarts from simply dropping the case against the wrong man and pursuing one against the actual father. But they seem never to do that.
Predictably, Fischer has no idea of those cases. What he does know is what the AG’s lawyers tell him.
Their office was specific: $4,221,976,348 in back support was collected in 2017 at a cost of $409,668,749. That’s $10.31, earned for every dollar spent.
Fischer’s impressed. But should he be? Let’s find out.
In the first place, this document from the Administration for Children and Families, that’s part of the Department of Health and Human Services and that oversees the Office of Child Support Enforcement, tells a far different story than do the lawyers Fischer relies on. Page 91 shows that Texas distributed a little over $1 billion in back child support in 2016. Fischer claims it collected over four times that in 2017.
It did no such thing. Page 9 of the ACF publications shows that Texas collected just under $4 billion in 2016. That means that what Fischer claims were collections of “back support,” i.e. arrears, were in fact total collections.
In fact, page 92 shows that there were about 1.14 million cases owing arrears in Texas and the state collected about $1.02 billion, or about $890 per case. That tallies well with anecdotal evidence from elsewhere. For example, the State of New Jersey periodically conducts “sweeps,” i.e. scattershot arrests of child support debtors. Those sweeps routinely collect somewhere between 1% and 2% of what’s owed. That is, faced with jail, child support debtors can only pony up a tiny percentage of what they owe and, tellingly, that’s fine with the state. In short, everyone understands that these people can’t pay what they owe and the Garden State takes what little it can get and then ballyhoos the results.
Obviously, Texas is in the same boat, whether Fischer knows it or not. Page 90 of the ACF publication shows total child support arrears owed to the state in 2016 as almost $16 billion. The AG’s Office collected a little over 6% of that. Fischer’s claim that the state collects over $10 for every dollar spent on collection is wrong. The correct figure is under $2.50.
Why so little? As I said yesterday, courts set support at levels parents can’t pay and then charge interest on top of the inevitable arrears. The ones behind on support payments are overwhelmingly poor. Here’s an analysis done by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation of the Department of Health and Human Services. It reports on nine states (one of them Texas). It’s dated 2007, but its observations and conclusions are as valid today as they were then.
Most of the arrears are owed by a relatively small number of non-custodial parents, each of whom owes a large amount of arrears… Using data from the federal tax refund offset program in April 2006, researchers found that 43 percent of the nation's certified arrears were owed by just 10 percent of the debtors, each of whom owed over $40,000 in certified arrears.
In the nine states studied, 31% of obligors owed a whopping 86% of the arrears and they all owed over $10,000.
The report by the ASPE makes clear that most of those arrears will never be collected.
In the nine study states, the obligors who owed over $30,000 in arrears, whom we refer to as high debtors, were quite different from other obligors. A major difference was the amount of reported income that high debtors had compared to other obligors. Nearly three quarters of the high debtors had no reported income or reported incomes of $10,000 a year or less… In the nine study states, 70 percent of the arrears were owed by obligors who had either no reported income or reported income of $10,000 a year or less.
Those are the people at whom Fischer was sneering as he lounged in child support court being entertained. The report is explicit about the likelihood of collecting what’s owed.
Combining results across seven study states, we estimate that 40 percent of the arrears owed at the time the data were extracted will be collected over 10 years. At the time the data were extracted, these states held $30 billion in arrears; we estimate that $12 billion of that will be collected in 10 years. In addition, we predict that arrears will grow in these seven states by 60 percent over 10 years, reaching $48 billion in 2014.
The ASPE estimated that arrears would grow by 60% in a decade. Remarkably, the ACF figures on pages 90 and 91 show that, over five years, arrears grew from about $12.18 billion to $15.84 billion, an increase of 30%, i.e. exactly in line with AFC estimates.
In short, what we’ve long known and what Steve Fischer remains blissfully ignorant of, remains true. Courts set support levels too high, obtaining a downward modification is too difficult and expensive and interest rates make matters worse. The overwhelming majority of child support debt will never be paid for the good and sufficient reason that obligors can’t do so.
All that entertains the august Mr. Fischer, but, to the responsible among us, it’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy produced entirely by misguided policies that have long assumed that fathers are deadbeats who don’t care about their children and will do anything to avoid supporting them. Fischer has swallowed those assumptions hook, line and sinker without bothering to do the few minutes of online research that would definitively show him how wrong he is.
But doing so would mean he couldn’t amble into child support court and get his entertainment at the expense of the poor and poorly educated. And we can’t have that, now can we.
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