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Fathering and Enforcement

It’s Time for a 180-Degree Turn in Child Support Enforcement Policies

SOURCE: AP/Richard Shiro

Teacher's aide Kathy Borders says she has had to struggle since 1997 to support her and her son due to the father's failure to pay child support. Even as the child support system works well for the majority of its families, it sometimes fails the poorest. Child support enforcement efforts can punish the poor for being poor and, ironically, make it difficult for them to work and provide for their children.

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Léalo en español

As our nation celebrates the importance of fathers this weekend, it’s a good time to reflect on how we show them love in the policies we create. And there is no greater place to do that than in the federal government’s Child Support Enforcement program, which needs to make a 180-degree turn from unfairly persecuting our country’s poorest men to actually helping their families through:

  • Ending punishments for men who are too poor to pay
  • Emphasizing employment assistance for those in need
  • Greatly expanding current token efforts focused on visitation

In recent years, there has been a new focus on federally funded fatherhood programs that provide parenting support and, at times, employment help. Yet those efforts are dwarfed by the $5.8 billion spent on the Child Support Enforcement program, which reaches the parents of 17.5 million children and half of all poor children. This is the program most likely to be engaging with low-income fathers.

Many of these men are facing great barriers to employment, some brought about by the current economy, and the system must do a better job of understanding their problems. Visitation is also key because low-income parents are often being locked out of systems that allow them to establish visitation arrangements (historically, visitation has been a minor focus of the child support enforcement agencies). Federal efforts in this area must be drastically expanded.

When the child support system works correctly, it plays a valuable role, assessing how much fathers can afford to pay, establishing unambiguous orders, ensuring funds are available for childrearing, and aggressively going after those who inexcusably simply don’t want to pay. It’s an advisable, almost necessary function, even if at times it’s not the most pleasant activity. Somewhat like developing a will or a prenuptial agreement for a person of great wealth, child support orders clearly define legal relationships and help avoid future misunderstandings and disagreements.

Even as the system works well for the majority of its families, it sometimes fails the poorest, and takes a form that is not a part of this ideal. Child support enforcement efforts can punish the poor for being poor and, ironically, make it difficult for them to work and provide for their children.

Men who are least likely to pay are the poorest—they are half of the debtors and responsible for 70 percent of back debts waiting to be collected. Many are experiencing hardships tied to their inability to find work in the current economy—earlier this year, child support agencies reported that the amount of collections intercepted from unemployment insurance checks nearly tripled by 2009. And we know that there must be still others who are looking for work and for various reasons don’t even qualify for unemployment benefits.

The consequences can include imprisonment, loss of a driver’s license necessary to maintain employment, wage garnishment, and public humiliation as your photo may be published in newspapers and on television. In short, our federal child support enforcement policies can make being both poor and a father into the severest of punishments.

One possible side effect may be to damage a father’s relationships with the source of his stress—the mother of his children and his children—relationships that are valuable to positive childhood outcomes. This ruins not only Father’s Day for these families but countless other days as well.

At a minimum, we must ensure the child support enforcement system acts fairly, which does not mean excusing men of their responsibilities but being realistic about what they can afford to pay. In recent years, some government agencies have made progress in ensuring they establish orders that are actually affordable for fathers, and that can be more easily adjusted as employment circumstances change. But an even more heavy-handed approach is necessary to fully eradicate the problem of orders exceeding a father’s ability to pay.

Still more radical changes could ensure the agencies not only better serve families but do a better job of fulfilling their mission of supporting families featuring a dad living apart from his children. Men who are employed can pay support and data indicate that men who see their children are more likely to pay support. Focusing on these concerns will require agencies to make a culture shift from persecuting men for being poor to better serving families. Such sea changes in government agencies (or any type of organization or company for that matter) is never easy but it must be done if we truly want to improve outcomes for children.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.

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