The real cost of child support
Maryland’s child support system often sets up poor families to fail, pulling parents, kids and communities under.
Maligned for generations as deadbeat dads, Maryland’s poorest fathers often get caught in a cycle of crushing debt by a relentless child support enforcement system that purports to serve children, but ultimately can fail them. In Baltimore, most of these men are African American.
An investigation by The Baltimore Sun has found short-sighted policies hurt families and their communities. Over 20% of the $1 billion in child support debt owed in Maryland — much of it uncollectible — is concentrated in 10 struggling Baltimore communities, and thousands of dads, moms and kids are paying the price.
This project was reported and written by Yvonne Wenger and supported by the Pulitzer Center. Data analysis by Christine Zhang. Design and development by Adam Marton. Illustrations by David Senior. Videos by Lloyd Fox.
Map: Concentration of child support debt
Parents split. Who pays?
A child support order is created, setting off a string of consequences.
When mom and dad are no longer together, their child is entitled to financial support from both parents. The custodial parent, most often the mother, can go to a local child support office to seek a promise of a monthly contribution from the other parent. If the noncustodial parent disagrees or doesn’t participate, the process moves to court. The child support system provides various services from proving paternity to garnishing wages and intercepting tax returns. While the child support system is available to any parent, it is disproportionately used by poor families.
By the numbers: Who’s in the child support system?
Total number of noncustodial parents in Maryland‘s child support system
Total child support debt in Maryland
Noncustodial parents with a child support case in Baltimore
- 91% African American
- 92% men
- 42% received food stamps
- 47% earned minimum wage or less
Income levels of noncustodial parents in Maryland’s child support system
The majority of noncustodial parents in Maryland’s child support system who are employed make less than a living wage
Note: Based on data from 2016 and 2017
The system can come up with an income for parents, even when they don’t have a job.
When a parent ordered to pay child support — sometimes called an obligor — is unemployed or underemployed, the amount they're charged is based on an estimate of earning potential known as imputed income. This hypothetical figure tends to be nearly two and a half times the parent's actual earnings. Research suggests that payment compliance is highest when an obligation is no more than one-fourth of actual income.
By the numbers: Orders based on imputed income
How often child support orders were based on imputed income
Based on a sample of child support cases between 2011 and 2014
Difference between imputed income and actual earnings
Among employed noncustodial parents
Note: Based on median incomes in a sample of child support cases between 2011 and 2014
Breakdown: How a child support order is established from imputed income
Imputed income simulates earnings from a job paying Maryland's minimum wage, now $11 an hour, with a judge deciding the number of hours "worked." How much of the imputed income the noncustodial parents owes as child support depends on how much the custodial parent makes as well as cost of living. If a custodial parent is unemployed or underemployed, their income may also be imputed.
Consider a hypothetical child support case in Baltimore for one child in which the noncustodial parent has an imputed income for full-time work and the custodial parent has actual income for full-time work paying $13.50 an hour.
|Monthly imputed income for noncustodial parent |
($11/hour, 40 hours/week)
|Monthly income of custodial parent |
($13.50/hour, 40 hours/week)
|Monthly combined income||$4,210|
The state uses guidelines based on resources, living expenses, and the number of children due support to determine the combined child support obligation of the parents. Generally, it ends up being around 20% of the parents' combined income, depending on variables.
In the example above, the variables yielded a joint child support obligation of 17.8%, or $750 a month. Since the noncustodial parent’s imputed income represents about 45% of the combined income, he would be responsible for the same proportion of child support, or about $337 a month.
|Monthly combined income||$4,210|
|Percentage of income guidelines obligate for child support||17.8%|
|Monthly child support obligation for both parents |
(17.8% of $4,210)
|Noncustodial parent’s monthly child support obligation |
(44.9% of $750)
Video: Expert on the effects of using imputed income
Document: Child support worksheet from an imputed income case
If you don’t pay, you can't drive
State officials yank driver's and professional licenses to force parents to pay child support. But the licenses are key to earning money.
If a parent doesn't pay child support in full for two straight months, his driver's license can be suspended. Exceptions can be made for people who drive for a living, such as couriers or bus drivers. But those exceptions may not be granted. Nonpayment can also cost plumbers and other workers the professional licenses they need to do their jobs.
Video: Parents, advocate on ramifications of license suspensions
By the numbers: License suspensions
- Nearly 40,000 people had their driver’s licenses suspended by Maryland’s child support agency as of September 2018. More than a third of those drivers lived in Baltimore.
- Some 1,900 professional and recreational licenses had been suspended by the state, including 751 in Baltimore, in September 2018, data show. Statewide, 320 licenses were for certified medication technicians. Another 152 were rideshare licenses and 224 barbers and 118 certified nursing assistants had their occupational privileges blocked.
Document: Letter from employer seeking reinstatement of license
When poor mothers and children get cash assistance, that money must be paid back by the parent who owes child support. That means at least some of the child support is going to the government, not the child.
If a custodial parent signs up to receive welfare, now called Temporary Cash Assistance, part of the noncustodial parent's child support payment may be redirected to reimburse the government. In 2018, there were 16,500 such cases statewide. Nearly half of them were in Baltimore. In total, Maryland families owe the government $156 million to pay back welfare. Recovering welfare costs was one of the main reasons the child support system was created in 1975.
By the numbers: Shrinking welfare rolls
Maryland families receiving Temporary Cash Assistance
2019 is estimated using January through March data.
“Temporary Cash Assistance” also refers to cash welfare under Aid for Families with Dependent Children (1960-1995) or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (1996-present)
Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Baltimore Sun analysis
Using child support to pay back cash assistance has generated significant money for government coffers, but as welfare rolls fall sharply, so does this revenue source. Stopping the practice of squeezing money from deeply poor parents to repay the government has never cost less, researchers say.
1971: Democratic U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell Long denounces “deadbeats who abandon [their children] to welfare” in a Senate floor address called “The Welfare Mess”
1975: A federal-state child support program is established with a primary purpose of recouping government welfare costs, requiring child support to children in welfare families to be paid to the government
1981: President Reagan signs bill cutting welfare spending and tightening eligibility rules
1996: President Clinton signs welfare reform bill, establishing stricter rules for welfare recipients and requiring states to give more child support payments to families who used to receive welfare
2004: Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement calls child support a “family-first program” and “no longer primarily a welfare reimbursement, revenue-producing device for the Federal and State governments”
2019: Maryland gives child support payments of $100 for one child and $200 for two children or more directly to welfare families, with the rest going to the government, starting in July
A national expert estimates it would cost Maryland only about $1 million a year to end the policy going forward and direct parents’ entire child support payments to their families
Transcript: The origin of the “deadbeat” dad trope
On Dec. 14, 1971, Democratic U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell Long gave a speech on the Senate floor leading up to the creation of the country’s child support system. This is believed to be the first use of "deadbeat" to describe fathers. Long pinned poverty on “family desertion and illegitimacy.”
“ Today, despite the billions of dollars Uncle Sam is putting into the welfare program to care for needy children, desertion is not a federal offense. … The law today makes it a simple matter for an unwilling parent to avoid his responsibility, simply disappear, and leaves his children to be paid for by the American taxpayers through the welfare system. By and large, these American taxpayers are living up to their own responsibilities, supporting their own children, and it is brutally unfair law which requires them to also support the children of the deadbeats who abandon them to welfare. ”
Behind bars, falling behind
When a parent goes to prison, child support debt can pile up.
Incarceration is one of the leading drivers of child support debt. Although it's possible for a noncustodial parent to freeze a child support order while serving time, the process is difficult to navigate. A 2005 study by the University of Maryland School of Social Work showed that every incarcerated parent with a child support order left prison behind on their payments. Researchers estimated that a quarter of Maryland’s child support debt was owed by current or former inmates. In Baltimore, the percentage was 40%. The Maryland findings are consistent with similar studies across the country.
Video: How debt shapes reentry
Document: Attorney General’s advice against retroactivity of reforms
Early last decade, Maryland enacted legislation allowing child support orders to be frozen during certain periods of incarceration, but as laid out in this letter, then-Attorney General Doug Gansler advised the state not to make the law retroactive.
Grim tally follows aging parents
At the end of life, when their children are adults themselves, disabled parents can discover they still owe thousands.
For poor dads with disabilities, the Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, they receive can’t be taken to pay down child support debt. But when these parents reach age 62, they begin to collect Social Security — and the state has long garnished those retirement checks. Many of these dads thought their balances had been resolved years ago. They have little means to pay it and are pursued, even though new federal regulations are supposed to shield that income. Debt can hound parents for life. Among noncustodial parents 62 or older, nearly two-thirds owed back payments in September 2018. Last year, almost 900 noncustodial parents died owing money.
Video: ‘Elephant on my chest’
Children, communities suffer
Trapping fathers has consequences for the whole family.
Inability to pay child support creates a hopeless situation for fathers. Many feel shame, and depression. That in turn drives them further from their families and often into the underground economy. The consequences for children raised without a father are well documented, including poorer educational outcomes and more trouble with the law.