Child support is one of the most important problems facing children seeking to maintain meaningful relationships with both their parents following divorce or separation. The intention behind child support is sensible – children need to be supported and, since both parents brought the child into the world, both should provide for it. But too many parents are ordered to pay amounts that they are too poor to pay, landing many of them in jail.
Those child support policies and their enforcement are in immediate need of drastic reform. The recent study conducted by the Abell Foundation makes the point crystal clear (Abell Foundation, June, 2019). The author of the study’s report, Vicky Turetsky is the former long-time commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. Few people if any are more knowledgeable about the issues besetting our child support policies than she.
Here’s how she begins her write-up of the Abell study:
Two decades of research present a stark message to Maryland policymakers: Unrealistic child support policies and practices entangle poor African American men and their families in poverty and have become a destabilizing force in the Baltimore community. Child support orders set beyond the ability of noncustodial parents to comply push them out of low-wage jobs, drown them in debt, hound them into the underground economy, and chase them out of their children’s lives.
What words could be more damning of a system that is meant to help kids? Those words are amply supported by empirical facts.
Maryland’s non-custodial parents owe a whopping $1.35 billion in arrears. That amount increases every year and, as Turetsky states, “will never be paid.” Why? Because courts set child support obligations at levels higher than obligors can pay. Unsurprisingly, they don’t, and when they don’t, their debt increases.
When that happens, they tend to abandon paid work for the underground economy. After all, paychecks can be garnished to pay child support, but cash cannot be.
And those who can’t pay are overwhelmingly likely to be poor.
Across Maryland, 50 percent of noncustodial parents in the state child support program caseload were employed in 2017, and 43 percent of these earned minimum wages or less.
Plus, the poorer the non-custodial parent, the greater the percentage of his/her income demanded by the child support system.
Maryland noncustodial parents who earn a $50,000 median income are ordered to pay 14 percent of their earnings toward child support, while noncustodial parents earning a $6,000 median income are ordered to pay 61 percent according to a University of Maryland analysis.
So it is the poorest and least able to pay who are hardest hit by child support. What’s left for the non-custodial parent who earns little and is required to pay 61% of it in child support? The system expects the impossible leading to parents opting out of the system altogether, which does nothing to benefit their kids.
I’ll say more about the Abell Foundation report in the near future. Although it’s concerned strictly about matters in Maryland, the report is applicable to the country at large.
With one exception. Unlike 32 other states, Maryland charges child support obligors no interest on their indebtedness. In that, Maryland is an oasis of good sense in a senseless desert. Indeed, many states still charge obligors interest at 12% and 10%, rates unpayable by the junkiest of junk bonds. Those rates demanded of poor parents are strictly punitive. If the parent can’t pay in the first place, what makes state lawmakers believe they can pay usurious interest too?
So, as you read the Abell Foundation report, keep in mind that, as bad as things are in Maryland, they’re worse elsewhere.