70% of Ohio Child Support Obligors in Default, Officials Admit Poverty, Not Willful Neglect, Is the Cause

In Ohio, 70% of child support cases are in default.  That means that in each of those cases, the parent who’s obligated to pay is behind.  In some counties in the state, the default rate is 80%.  Read about it here (Dayton Daily News, 9/29/11).

County and state officials blame the economy, high unemployment and parents” inability to pay the amounts mandated by the courts for many of the defaults. Officials also cite difficulties establishing proper wage withholding processes with some parents” employers.

Incarceration also prevents some parents from making child support payments, while others simply refuse to pay child support, officials said.

The bad economy is a little over three years old now and shows no sign of improving. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement has complained for years that state courts set support levels higher than parents can pay.  That of course guarantees a high default rate, which in turn guarantees increased costs to the taxpayer to attempt to enforce payment of the unpayable amounts.  Enforcement sometimes includes incarceration which is both fantastically expensive to the state and itself guarantees that the jailed parent will be unable to find a job to make the payments. To say the least it’s a dysfunctional system, but it’s actually worse than that.  In addition to all of the above, the system of child support offers a big, juicy carrot to every state; the more a state collects in child support, the more federal largesse it receives.  So there’s every incentive to set support levels high in the hopes of collecting more. But when a parent can’t pay, the same incentive exists.  So states that on the front end set support levels too high, throw up roadblocks on the back end to parents seeking downward modifications.  So, if a parent loses his job, as countless have over the past several years, he finds getting a downward modification a hard, slow, expensive process.  Again, if the state reduces his obligation, the federal government will transfer less money to that state, because he’s paid less. And it’s exactly that double whammy that’s having its effect in Ohio (and all across the country) right now.  It’ll continue to do so far into the future due to the economy’s remaining stuck in a classic spiral of declining wages and stagnant prices.  Indeed, if I were to guess, I’d say there’s a possibility that the child support situation will get so bad that it might just cause some much-needed changes, specifically to procedures for downward modification based on changed circumstances. As things stand now, 70% of cases are in default and the continuing lack of jobs, combined with the continuing unwillingness of the system to grant reasonable requests for modification, will result in still higher rates of default. And the impact is not just on non-custodial parents, of course.  With less child support, custodial parents get in a financial bind as well, and when they do, they turn to the taxpayer for help.

Custodial parents are more likely to seek public assistance when the other parent is not paying child support.?That leads to higher costs for taxpayers, said Robert Gruhl, director of the county”s child support enforcement…

“The impact of the economic recession has devastated our ability to collect at previously attained levels from years past,’ Gruhl said. That translates into “less spending power by (custodial parents), thereby potentially eroding the tax base and potentially causing a reduction in local sales tax revenue collections, etc.,’ Gruhl said. “Less collection means the state of Ohio might potentially earn less in federal incentive dollars for these efforts.’

You’ll notice the point of view of the state official.  Gruhl’s emphasis is on one thing – money, and the more the better.  The idea that actual human beings, i.e. non-custodial fathers, are in such dire straits, out of a job, unable to pay and facing license suspension and jail, seems never to occur to him. In the face of wholesale default, the state’s recent amendment of its enforcement laws is, while a step in the right direction, only a short one.  Ohio has extended the time from 30 days to 90 days in which a parent can be in default before having his driver’s license suspended.  It also provides that a parent who’s paid half of what he owes can’t have his license to drive suspended for failure to pay. How well does the license suspension procedure work to bring parents into compliance with their child support obligations?

As of Aug. 31, Montgomery County had 10,426 driver”s licenses in suspended status for non-payment of child support. As of July 31, the county had collected $306,709 as a result of those license suspensions, excluding collections for March and April.

That’s less than $30 per suspension.  You read that right – $30.  So it doesn’t look like suspending a person’s license is very effective at making him pay the bill. In that, it looks a lot like incarceration.  Time and again we see states conduct “sweeps” of defaulting parents.  New Jersey conducts its sweep twice a year and collects one cent per dollar owed.  One cent.  Those are parents who’ve had a sheriff’s deputy knock on their door, a warrant stuck in their face, been handcuffed, put in a police car and taken to jail.  Those parents pay one cent on the dollar. License suspensions gross $30 apiece. There’s a lesson here that I’m sure is obvious to all but those like Gruhl who see only one thing – the amount of money coming into state coffers.  It is this:  non-custodial parents can’t pay all they owe.  The recession is real and lasting, and absurd references to “deadbeat parents” won’t make it go away. Predictably, it takes parents in the system to say what needs to be said.

Charles Jones of Dayton said it took him a few months to get his license reinstated after it was suspended for defaulting on child support. He called the law a hindrance.

“If you take someone”s license, then you make it hard for them to even cash their check to pay their support,’ said Jones, who is currently paying child support. David Tigner of Dayton said it took him just less than three years to get his driver”s license reinstated. One thing that helped him was that he became the custodial parent of his children. Now he”s paying back child support for the time he was not the custodial parent.

Tigner was glad to hear about the changes the new law brings.”The economy is bad and jobs are not as (plentiful) as they used to be. So, when they suspend your license (and) you do get a job, then how are you going to get there?’ Tigner said. “I just feel it”s unfair in the end.’

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