April 2, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
‘Tis a season of change, a time of upheaval. It’s an era in which everyday life has been turned upside down and things we thought of as givens now aren’t. Do you need to go to the hardware store for a part for the leaky valve in the sink? You can’t. Thought you had a stable job? You were wrong. Some things are known to be certain as a matter of cliché, but now even taxes won’t be collected at the usual time. Death? That’s another matter.
So in this time of crisis and uncertainty, where it seems nothing is predictable, it’s “good” to know that at least one of life’s eternal verities remains. I refer of course to sticking it to poor parents for child support (NBC News, 3/27/20). That, my friends, continues to be public policy, even now.
As we all know, the federal Treasury will soon be mailing out checks to individuals who reported under $75,000 in income on their tax returns last year. And pretty much all of those people will be getting them - except for those owing child support. So, for example, Sarah may be behind on repaying her student debt, but she needn’t worry. She’ll get her check in due course. So will Jason even though he owes the Internal Revenue Service a hefty amount in back income taxes. The government is empowered to collect those debts and could withhold Sarah’s or Jason’s check and credit the amount toward their indebtedness. But it won’t do that. For them, the check’s in the mail, and this time, it really is.
Not so Randall who’s fallen behind on his child support. No, he gets nothing. Never mind that, if he got that check, he’d be better able to support his child. And never mind that the government’s keeping it from him won’t provide the child one penny more than she otherwise would have. None of those obvious facts matter. Like the system of child support enforcement, the federal government’s action on stimulus payments is purely punitive. It assumes that non-custodial parents are able to pay what they’ve been ordered to, but don’t out of spite, greed or whatever.
In sum, the stimulative effect of the checks is blunted, the lives of non-custodial parents are made worse and no child is benefited. Make sense?
And let’s not forget that those who owe child support are, generally speaking, the poorest of the poor, i.e. the ones who most need and would most benefit from those checks. The Office of Child Support Enforcement has long told us that over 60% of those in arrears report incomes under $10,000 per year. Those are people to whom $1,200 is real money. But they won’t get it, not because they don’t need it and not because they don’t care about their kids.
Overwhelmingly, those parents don’t pay because they can’t. And, since they don’t even have the money to pay what they owe, they certainly don’t have the money pay a lawyer to file for a downward modification of their support order. So their arrears go up and up and interest and fees only add to the burden that will never, never be lifted.
That’s why the Department of Health and Human Services has for years reported that at least 40% of what’s owed is completely uncollectable. It’s a bad debt that any sensible business would have written off years or decades ago.
But not the federal or state governments. They go right along pretending that, if they keep hammering on it long enough, that stone really will produce blood. It’s a fool’s game that the politicians are playing solely because they don’t have the courage to admit the truth. Being tough on “deadbeat dads” remains a ballot-box winner, so common sense and decency must be sacrificed.
And the poorest of the poor, the real hard cases of our society pay the bill so our elected officials can spend five minutes preening for the cameras.
Come to think of it, isn’t that another of those eternal verities? Yes, I believe it is.