NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

March 26, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Recently, I reported that a judge in New Jersey had declared unconstitutional its child support enforcement scheme that automatically suspended the driver’s license of anyone owing back child support in a given amount.  Now it appears Missouri is doing much the same thing.

And the organization Equal Justice Under Law doesn’t like it one bit.  It’s suing the state for suspending the license to drive of anyone owing $2,500 in child support or who’s been in arrears for three months, whichever amount is less.  This article makes some telling points about the advisability of doing so (Liberty Unyielding, 3/22/19).
Low-income people with cars have access to 30 times as many jobs as low-income people dependent on public transit, notes transportation expert Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute: “Transit speeds average just 15 mph while average auto speeds in most cities are twice that.”  Moreover, “autos allow users to go where and when they want to go, while transit riders must go where and when the transit goes, which often means less direct routes than they could drive.”
I and others have said it many times.  Driver’s license suspension makes getting and retaining a job difficult.  A person who can drive can get to and from work.  A person who can drive can get a job operating a motor vehicle.  He/she can drive a taxi, a truck, work for a delivery service, Lyft, Uber, etc.  A person with no license can’t.  States that suspend drivers’ licenses make paying child support harder, not easier.  That means kids go without.  You remember kids.  They’re the ones states are supposedly helping when they enforce child support orders.

Why don’t people pay their child support?  It’s mostly for two reasons.  The first is that states set support levels too high for obligors to pay.  It’s a fact long admitted by the Office of Child Support Enforcement.  And,
When California commissioned the Urban Institute to investigate why parents were often behind on their child support, it reported that the number one reason for arrearages was that “orders are set too high relative to ability to pay.”
Then there’s the fact that, when an obligor loses his/her job, becomes disabled or otherwise isn’t earning the usual wage, it’s all but impossible to get a downward modification of the child support order.
The Urban Institute noted years ago that only 4% of noncustodial parents manage to get their monthly child support payments reduced when they lose their job, even though jobless people can’t afford to pay as much as people with jobs. Their unpaid child support just grows and grows, leading to them losing their driver’s license and access to most potential jobs.
The reason for all of this is that, back in the 80s, the myth of the “deadbeat dad” was born and rocketed to popularity.  State legislatures grew convinced that, if Dad was behind on his child support payments, it was only because he didn’t care about his kids and preferred to live a feckless existence.  That there was essentially no evidence for that proposition and much that refuted it mattered little.  Laws were passed to punish non-custodial parents, the great majority of whom were fathers, and regulations put in place to punish those in arrears in the most draconian ways.  Until comparatively recently, states routinely charged obligors 10% and 12% interest on unpaid balances, rates seen elsewhere only for the junkiest of junk bonds.

Then of course the federal government stepped in and offered states financial incentives that made those draconian enforcement methods all but inevitable.  Paying states for what they collect was part of that plus a budget of $5 billion annually for child support enforcement.  No one is surprised at the outcome.

The few people who argue in favor of those draconian enforcement mechanisms often point to the fact that sometimes they actually work.  Sometimes money is forthcoming when the obligor goes to jail.  It’s true.  The problem being that the money usually comes, not from the obligor, but from his relatives or friends – you know, people who owe no obligation of support to the child.

In the lawsuit, the State of Missouri will likely point to the fact that, unlike New Jersey’s, its law doesn’t automatically suspend the licenses of those in arrears, but only allows the state to do so.  It will claim that, in accordance with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, it conducts hearings to ascertain a person’s ability to pay.  Don’t believe it.  We’ve been to that rodeo before.  Parents in arrears are overwhelmingly poor and uneducated and have little way of knowing what evidence of inability to pay they have to produce for the judge or how to produce it.  Given that those “hearings” generally last about five minutes, the reality is that driver’s license suspension comes perilously close to being automatic.

OCSE data reveal unpaid child support levels that increase every single year.  Today, there is absolutely no chance that those balances will ever be paid off, a fact candidly admitted by the OCSE.  As of 2016, the unpaid balance was over $116 billion and climbing.  In 2007, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation of the Department of Health and Human Services reported that 70% of arrears were due from obligors who had either zero income or reported earning less than $10,000 per year.  The same office reported that it expected to collect just 40% of arrears over a ten-year period, during which time of course, the total amount owed would keep climbing.  Here’s my post from last year on the matter.

There are sensible ways of approaching child support.  Principally, that would mean setting support orders that parents can pay, reforming parenting time so each parent has as close to half the time with the child as possible, making downward modifications easier to obtain and enforcing visitation orders with the same vigor as we do child support orders. 

Needless to say, we’re lightyears away from taking such reasonable steps.  In the meantime, we’ll have to rely on organizations like Equal Justice Under Law to force a degree of sanity on states that still seem to believe that non-resident fathers don’t care about their kids and the way to squeeze money out of the poor is to treat them as harshly as possible.

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