In fall 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child Support Enforcement—after consulting with states, law enforcement officials, employers, and other stakeholders—published and sought public comment on a set of proposed changes that would modernize the federal rules that govern the child support system. These changes would strengthen the child support system in ways that would increase regular, on-time payments to families; boost employment and earnings for noncustodial parents; and increase the amount of time that noncustodial parents spend with their children.
Unfortunately, even though the public comments on the proposed updates have been overwhelmingly positive, House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and other congressional Republicans have introduced legislation to block them. Instead of playing politics, Rep. Ryan and his colleagues should support these important updates as a modest first step toward improving the child support system for parents and children.
With more than half of all U.S. children spending at least a portion of their childhoods living apart from one of their parents, the child support system is an important tool in promoting economic security for families, as well as ensuring the well-being of children. Child support represents critical income for the children and families who receive it. In 2011, mothers who received child support from fathers depended on these payments for 17 percent of their income; for custodial parents below the poverty line who received child support, the payments accounted for more than half—52 percent—of their income.
However, many low-income, noncustodial parents struggle to make payments, typically because they are unable to find work or have low-paying jobs that leave them barely able to meet their basic needs. Under current child support policies, noncustodial parents who fall behind on their child support payments—due to job loss or incarceration, for example—can accumulate substantial arrears and end up facing crushing debt. A recent study of child support arrearages in nine states found that noncustodial parents with the largest arrearages are also the ones least able to pay their child support payments. About 70 percent of past-due child support is owed by noncustodial parents with no reported income or an income of $10,000 or less per year.Furthermore, nearly one-third of the 6 million custodial mothers without formal child support awards acknowledge that the reason they do not receive one is because the father cannot afford child support.
These unfortunate realities of the child support system create the ultimate lose-lose scenario: noncustodial parents fall behind, custodial parents do not receive the help they need to support their families, and arrears pile up. Making matters even worse, noncustodial parents often end up behind bars for nonpayment of child support, setting up a modern day debtors’ prison that makes it harder for them to find employment upon release. It is this vicious cycle that led to the tragic death of Walter Scott, a South Carolina father who was pulled over for a broken tail light and then shot in the back while trying to flee law enforcement for fear of being arrested for owing child support debt.
While some conservatives in Congress may claim that the proposed updates to the child support rules “let delinquent parents off the hook,” in fact, they would do just the opposite. These updates would arm states with the tools they need to set realistic orders and ensure that noncustodial parents are financially responsible for their children. Here are three facts to know about the Obama administration’s proposed updates to the child support rules:
1. They build on bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system
One of the most important components of the proposed regulations is the requirement that states consider noncustodial parents’ actual ability to pay when in setting child support orders. As noted above, unrealistic child support orders help no one, trapping parents in a vicious cycle of debt, nonpayment, and even incarceration. Walter Scott wasn’t alone—one in eight South Carolina inmates are behind bars due to nonpayment of child support. A related and equally important component of the proposed rules would require that states no longer treat incarceration as so-called voluntary unemployment for purposes of child support enforcement. Today, incarceration is not a permissible basis for pausing child support orders in 21 states, meaning that a noncustodial parent can accumulate significant arrears—plus interest—while behind bars, despite being unable to make payments. Given that many individuals leaving prison face significant barriers to employment, it can be difficult—if not impossible—for these parents to dig themselves out of this hole, setting them on a path to reincarceration.
2. They address barriers to employment for noncustodial parents, helping them pay more in child support
These rules address a root cause of noncustodial parents’ inability to pay child support: unemployment and underemployment. By giving state agencies new options to use federal child support funding to offer employment services to noncustodial parents who are out of work or struggling to make regular payments, the rules would help noncustodial parents find their economic footing so that they can contribute financial resources to their children. Where they have been tested, efforts to help noncustodial parents find jobs—instead jailing them for nonpayment—have resulted in parents paying more in child support, as well as making more consistent payments.
3. They promote strong and stable families
The proposed rules would allow states to incorporate discussions of visitation and parenting time into child support orders, providing greater opportunities to formalize noncustodial parents’ involvement with their children after relationships end. They would also allow states to use federal child support funding to offer education and resources to parents and to the general public on responsible parenting and co-parenting, as well as other issues such as family budgeting.
The bottom line
The Obama administration’s proposed rules are a win-win-win for children, families, and state governments. They would go a long way toward reforming counterproductive and outdated policies that make it harder for noncustodial parents to make payments, as well as contribute to mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty. These rules would also provide greater flexibility and tools for states to do a better job in collecting payments for families who need them. Conservatives in Congress should stop putting politics over families and help finalize these important rules.
Melissa Boteach is the Vice President of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Rebecca Vallas is the Director of Policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center.