The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) claims that we should adopt even more draconian policies to collect child support than we already do by passing the Farm Bill currently before Congress. The National Parents Organization strongly believes that parents should responsibly support their children. But “cracking down” on parents who are poor has a long history of hurting children more than helping them.
Child support policy among the poor does not work for several long-known reasons.
First, state courts are incentivized by federal payments to the states to set child support orders at levels the poor cannot pay. For instance, in many states, a minimum child support payment of $1,200 to $1,800 per year is required no matter how little the payer earns; this is uncollectible from someone earning, say, $8000 per year. As a result, studies in both California and by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) have shown that about 70 percent of all unpaid child support dollars are owed by parents who earn less than $10,000 per year. The federal OCSE has explicitly recognized since at least 2006 that these child support amounts involve the very poor are largely uncollectible, but we’ve seen little change in state court orders.
Second, the Farm Bill calls for more pressure on food stamp families to pay child support. But most food stamp dads are in the under $10,000 demographic and cannot pay. Should those parents support their children? Of course they should. Unfortunately, many simply can’t as the OCSE has long admitted and the statistics demonstrate.
Third, almost half of custodial mothers simply don’t file for a child support order. The Census Bureau shows that in 2013, there were about 11.1 million custodial mothers in the U.S., but only about 5.9 million (53.1 percent) of them had taken out a support order. The FGA insists: “Under this reform, custodial parents would be prohibited from obstructing the state’s attempts to establish paternity, track down absent parents or collect child support.” Except that no benefits clerk has figured out what to do when mom counters, “I have no idea who the father is.”
If the child support system were seen as effective for them, why would almost half of all custodial mothers simply opt out of that system?
For the poor, the answer is that they want no part of its draconian enforcement mechanisms. Poor mothers understand that their equally poor ex-partners can’t do much to support their children, but generally do what they can. Most of their support is “in-kind,” e.g. Pampers, formula, toys, etc. Data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study demonstrate that poor fathers care deeply about their children, but are unable to make regular cash payments to support them. If they suddenly had to pay $1200 per year in child support on pain of losing a driver’s license or going to jail, they would be forced to disappear. The mothers know this, and prefer the Pampers to nothing at all. Plus some of them are simply happy to see him — or he even secretly lives with them — and they don’t want him to be hounded away, as would happen if they cooperated with the child support system.
Fourth, in most states, almost all child support paid on behalf of children on welfare goes not to the mother, but to the general revenues of the state. So mothers and children do not benefit from collection, the state does. That’s also a reason that poor fathers will buy Pampers, but are unwilling to pay child support in cash to the state collection agency; they know their child won’t receive it.
The FGA claims that child support payments from the very poor will make a significant difference for the taxpayer. But public benefits such as TANF, public housing, Medicaid and more can easily be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Any collectible child support from this demographic is small change compared to the public support. Meanwhile, collecting that small change costs the state more in administrative costs, court costs, attorneys’ fees, etc. than the amount collected. While the FGA touts the results of a pilot program in Kansas, the study does not examine the costs of the program, depends on unstated assumptions and calculations of the author, and is too new to demonstrate sustainability.
There is, however, something more important than money at stake. Most poor children love their “deadbeat” dads. They are elated when he comes around, fantasize about him when he is gone, and are sad, angry, hurt, distracted or rebellious when he doesn’t show up. They do better in school and have lower risks of substance abuse and gang activity the more contact they have with him. Neither the children nor the mothers want him to disappear due to persecution by bureaucrats. Our misguided child support system breaks up fragile families and deprives children of the only things the indigent dad has to offer his children: his love, guidance and companionship. Today’s approach is the triumph of the material over the humane, of the value of dollars over the value of love, and the Farm Bill would make this worse.
Ned Holstein, M.D. is the founder and chairman of the board of the National Parents Organization. Robert Franklin, J.D. is a member of the organization’s board of directors.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.