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Child Support Policy: Radical Reforms Get a Look


It's no surprise that Geraldine Jensen is screaming for radical surgery to the nation's child support enforcement system. Ms. Jensen and her two sons spent 10 years mired in poverty and cashed more than a few welfare checks before enforcement agents forced her comfortably employed ex-husband to cough up support.

What's news is that Washington is taking her seriously.

Ms. Jensen, who founded and now directs the 25,000-member Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, wants Congress to pull the plug on the $2 billion-a-year state-based child support enforcement program and instead sic the IRS on deadbeat dads. And when absent parents can't or won't pay, Ms. Jensen is demanding that the federal government guarantee single mothers a steady support check -- at taxpayers' expense.

A major new federal program? A brand new entitlement? In this day and age? Unlikely as it sounds, lawmakers of both parties and the co-chair of the president's welfare reform task force insist that these and other revolutionary changes may soon be enacted.

The reasons are stark and simple: At a time when more than one in four children live apart from either mom or dad, absent parents forked over only $11 billion in 1989. That's just two-thirds of the $16 billion they owed and about one-fourth of the $35 billion to $50 billion that experts say they should owe if every custodial parent entitled to a support order had one and if these orders were updated regularly to reflect absent parents' true income.

Increasing child support is prerequisite both to reducing the nation's alarming child poverty rate and to achieving President Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it."

"There's no question that the existing child support system is operating extremely poorly," said David Ellwood, an assistant health and human services secretary and co-chair of the Clinton welfare reform effort.

The Clinton welfare initiative, under Mr. Ellwood, has accelerated an already snowballing drive toward fundamental change in child support. The most sweeping idea under consideration is a federally guaranteed child support benefit. Under this proposal,

if custodial parents are unable to collect a minimum level of support -- perhaps $2,000 to $3,000 for their first child and $500 to $1,000 for each subsequent child -- the government will make up the difference.

This so-called "child support assurance" was initially proposed a decade ago by Irwin Garfinkel, an economist then at the University of Wisconsin. By providing a base income that single parents can keep if they work but not if they're on welfare, Mr. Garfinkel argued, an assured benefit would not only reduce poverty but also make work more attractive than welfare.

Mr. Garfinkel estimates that a nationwide assured child support benefit of $3,000 coupled with an improved but still imperfect support collections system would reduce the welfare rolls by 32 percent. Counting the savings in welfare and Medicaid, Garfinkel projects that the new child support benefit would add only $2.1 billion per year to the $1.4 trillion federal budget.

Although these estimates are untested, the logic behind the child support assurance has attracted lawmakers of both parties. The Republican House Wednesday Group called for state-level demonstrations of the assurance scheme in 1991, as did West Virginia Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV's National Commission on Children. Last year, the U.S. Commission on Interstate Child Support proposed demonstrations of the assured benefit, and Mr. Rockefeller and Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut each introduced a bill to pay for them. In the House, Democratic Rep. Thomas J. Downey of New York and Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois issued a report last year calling for nationwide implementation of a child support assurance.

The proposed assurance has its share of detractors. Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute calls it "welfare by another name."

"The long and the short of it is that the mother gets $1,000 per child whether or not the father pays," Mr. Besharov said. "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. And this is a welfare program."

Mr. Besharov also argued that the costs of the assurance have been substantially underestimated. "The whole concept is based the false assumption that you can raise enough in increased child support to pay for a brand new welfare program," he said. "You can't." Mr. Hyde, who endorsed the proposal last year, has since cooled in his support for the assurance -- at least as a nationwide program. "Right now I think that would be too much to swallow," he said. "It doesn't seem a propitious time right now for a major new program that might have a big price tag. I'd like to see what it actually costs in practice."

To date, President Clinton has not embraced the assured child support scheme, and Mr. Ellwood said in a recent interview that no decision has been made about whether to include it in the Clinton welfare plan, due out this winter.

"[The assurance] really doesn't make sense unless it's coupled with a significantly improved support enforcement system," he said. "So we've spent most of our energy so far trying to accomplish that."

Among the reforms being discussed are proposals to develop a national registry of child support orders and streamline enforcement in cases where parents live in different states, expand the IRS role in interstate collections, require states to report delinquent parents to credit bureaus, and require employers to report to state enforcement agencies the names and social security numbers of all newly hired workers.

By far the boldest proposal is Mr. Hyde's bill to turn responsibility for collecting child support over to the IRS.

"The IRS has resources that are formidable and fearsome," said Mr. Hyde, whose bill has 45 co-sponsors. "And with heavy interest and penalty charges, it will no longer be to a non-custodial parent's benefit to delay or withhold payment of child support."

Perhaps the strongest argument for moving collections to the IRS is that 30 percent of child support cases involve parents who live in different states. Because interstate laws are weak and overwhelmed enforcement agents have few incentives to pursue collections for parents in other states, interstate cases account for only 8 percent of child support dollars collected each year.

Many parents in Baltimore and nationwide report waiting years on end for interstate collections. Renee Mathews, for instance, hasn't seen a check from her ex-husband in Hawaii in more than a year. After repeated telephone calls to the Baltimore enforcement office, she persuaded agents to call Hawaii. "But they're saying that Hawaii won't help them," she reported. "They can't get any information."

A national collection system under the IRS could end Ms. Mathews' problem. "The IRS has computers that cross state lines rather easily," Mr. Hyde said. Under the IRS, he predicted, "the delinquency rate will plummet."

But a federal commission last year found that deputizing the IRS is the wrong approach.

"We've never given child support the resources that it needs," said Margaret Campbell Haynes, an American Bar Association official who headed the Interstate Commission on Child Support. "[The commission] felt that we were not at the point where we can determine that the state-based system cannot work and is )) not going to work."

Paula Roberts of the Center for Law and Social Policy disagreed. "I don't know how many kids we're going to have to lose before we go ahead and do what's right," Ms. Roberts said. "To me it's like someone who's committed rape six times. At what point do we say that your protestations of good faith are not enough?"

Geraldine Jensen also protested vehemently. Ms. Jensen, who served on the Haynes commission but dissented from its report, said: "We need to make your child support obligation just as important as paying your taxes."

Unlike Ms. Jensen, Mr. Ellwood sees hope for improving child support collections without yanking responsibility from the states. "The people trying to collect child support have been working with one hand tied behind their backs," he said.

But Mr. Ellwood knows better than to discount the influence of Ms. Jensen and other single parents disgruntled with an enforcement that's clearly still broken.

"She has been very effective in going around the country convincing congressmen and others that this is something that's very important," Mr. Ellwood said.

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