Child support was meant to create financial security for children so that parents splitting up didn’t result in a life of poverty. But the child support system has morphed into one that instead can exacerbate the cycle of poverty, criminalizing fathers who can’t afford to pay and widening the family divide — all of which only hurts children in the end.
Not convinced? Consider this telling statistic: About 70 percent of the country’s 15 million unpaid child support cases are owed by parents who make less than $10,000 a year, according to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas Austin. In 2017, three-quarters of Maryland parents with child support orders making minimum wage or less owed arrears, according to the University of Maryland School of Social Work. The median amount owed was $10,160.
It doesn’t take much for a low-income parent who can barely make ends meet to get behind. They get sick and work a job with no paid leave and their paycheck comes up short. Suddenly there is no money to cover all the bills, including child support.
Or they commit a crime and are still on the hook for child support, but not earning money because they are in jail and not working. Sure, they shouldn’t have gotten in trouble, but what’s done is done, and coming out of jail owing months of back child support they can’t pay isn’t a good option either. Or what if they have mental illness and are institutionalized for months?
Lower income parents may also face other obstacles to getting employment, such as a spotty work history, lack of job training or limited job skills.
Punitive measures that are automatically triggered, such as reporting a parent to the credit bureaus or taking away a driver’s license for failing to pay support — or worse, sending people to jail — will also just set a low-income parent further behind with little hope of catching up. How is a parent supposed to get to work with no license — or in some cases to do the job at all? Think about the truck driver and UPS delivery men. The state can also suspend professional licenses for missing payments.
Even if a parent works out an agreement with the courts, he is still considered out of compliance as long as he is in arrears by any amount and can continue to stack up life-altering penalties.
The child support system needs an overhaul, and some in the General Assembly are trying to make that happen. Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, has introduced legislation that would require the Department of Human Services to study child support collection practices with a special focus on poor families. Although we support the initiative and encourage the General Assembly to pass it, a report wouldn’t come out until December, and more urgency is needed to address the problem.
Parents falling into deeper holes of debt don’t have months to wait. Other child support legislation pending in the General Assembly needs more immediate attention to help give some reprieve to these low-income parents, which in Maryland are also disproportionately African American, contributing to the state’s economic disparities.
One bill would ask courts to look at factors that would impact a parent’s income, such as prison sentences or their ability to find work because of the job market or literacy skills. For families on the lowest rung of the income ladder — those who make $1,200 a month or less, current rules let judges set child support at a range of $20 to $150, but advocates say too many judges are choosing the higher end of that range and families just can’t afford it. Pending legislation would set that at a flat $50 for one child.
Other things the state could consider are forgiving child support debt and counting in-kind support, such as when parents buy diapers and clothes.
Deadbeat dads often dominate the child support debate, and we don’t want to make it easier for them to skirt the system. We want those who can afford it to pay their fair share, and there is also legislation pending to make sure payment amounts are keeping up with the economy. But there are plenty of fathers (because mothers disproportionately have primary custody) who love their kids and want to do what’s right but simply can’t financially.
When they feel helpless and as if the system is working against them, fathers may disappear altogether, missing court dates and paying no support rather than what they can afford. The stress of being unable to afford support may make them feel inadequate and hurt connections with their children, not to mention create an antagonistic relationship with the other parent, which is never good for the child.