You don't have to tell most parents that raising a kid isn't cheap. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated this year that parents who earn less than about $57,000 a year spent between $8,330 and $9,450 per child annually on child-rearing costs in 2008. And the more affluent families were, the more they spent bringing up baby: as much as $13,480 for those earning between $56,870 and $98,470 a year, and up to $22,960 for those with incomes above $100,000.

Clearly, choosing to have children represents a major long-term economic commitment, and it is one that continues whether or not the child's parents ultimately stay together. When parents separate, kids stand to lose the most, emotionally and economically. Yet the formula Maryland uses to set the level of child support paid by noncustodial parents hardly reflects the cost of raising a child. The last major revision in the formula was in 1988, and it was based on economic data from the 1970s.

That's why we applaud Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald's effort to bring the state's child support formulas more in line with present-day economic realities. At minimum, lawmakers need to raise the percentage of total family income earmarked for child support enough to reflect the actual proportion of family income that parents need to spend on their kids.

Maryland's current child support formula, for example, amounts to about 14.6 percent of total monthly household income, even though the Department of Agriculture's figures suggest that the real costs of child-rearing are closer to 16.6 percent. Making up that difference would increase child support $100 a month, on average.

The revisions Secretary Donald is proposing would increase child support rates for middle-to-high-income noncustodial parents to better reflect the higher cost of raising children today. But they would also slightly reduce rates for parents earning less than $16,200 a year; the poorest families pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income on child-raising expenses, and the revised formula would take that disparity into account. Reducing rates for extremely low-income parents might also encourage more people to pay child support.

The revisions would apply to new child support cases but would not affect parents who are already either paying or receiving child support. A parent with custody of a child who wished to receive the higher rates from a noncustodial parent would have to petition a court and request a modification in his or her support payment, just as such parents do now.

The new guidelines were drawn up by a task force of attorneys, judges, legislators and staff, who came up with revisions over the last 12 months aimed at bringing Maryland's policy in line with those of other states. About 500,000 children in Maryland depend on child support, and last year the Department of Human Resources collected and distributed more than $500 million in payments. When the General Assembly reconvenes, it should approve these needed changes to ensure that the payments custodial parents receive continue to adequately ensure their children's economic well-being into the 21st century.

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