March 19, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The American Enterprise Institute’s Robert Doar’s article here attacking proposed changes to child support enforcement regulations is both misguided and at times misinformed (Wall Street Journal, 3/9/15). As the former director of child support enforcement for the State of New York, he should know better.
Doar waits all the way until his second sentence to let readers know that his piece aims to mislead.
The most recent Census Bureau report found that in 2011 fewer than 50% of single mothers had child-support orders — down from almost 60% in 2003.
No, actually the number is 53.4%. All Doar had to do was go to this page and read the figures. He didn’t even have to do any simple arithmetic; the nice people at the Census Bureau did the long division for him. The number — 53.4% is right there in the last column.
But Doar doesn’t stop at simple falsehoods. No, his first major point is that the Obama Administration, which is to say Vicky Turetsky who heads the OCSE, is allowing deadbeat dads to escape paying child support. His second is that, because child support is “an anti-poverty program,” and a successful one at that, any effort to make reasonable changes to enforcement programs strikes a blow at poor single mothers.
Sigh. Where to begin? If Doar had taken, say, an hour or so to read some pertinent information, he’d know that child support is no more an anti-poverty program than the man in the moon. And it’s unquestionably not a successful one.
How, for example, does Doar explain the fact that those who receive the large majority of the child support, both individually and collectively, are twice as likely to live in poverty as those who receive the least? Needless to say, he makes no effort to do so, likely because it would interfere with his misguided narrative.
Custodial mothers are almost twice as likely as custodial fathers to have a child support order. Their orders require non-custodial fathers to pay more than non-custodial mothers. NC dads pay a higher percentage of what they owe and more in absolute dollars than do NC mothers. And yet custodial mothers are about twice as likely as custodial fathers to live in poverty. Those are all figures from the Census Bureau. Unquestionably, what sends one parent into poverty and not another has little to do with child support received. Does Doar not know the facts or does he refuse to report them because they conflict with his opinion?
Whatever the answer, his brief for the proposition that child support is a successful anti-poverty program is simple nonsense.
Nor does he let on about the basics of who it is who’s defaulting on child support or why. Six years ago the OCSE put out a paper demonstrating that the ones who are falling behind are the very poorest of Americans. Indeed, 63% of those in arrears reported earnings of under $10,000 in the previous year. Of course it may well be that some of those people underreported their income, but still, it raises the question of just what resources those parents have with which to pay.
The OCSE answered that question directly by begging family court judges to issue child support orders that non-custodial parents could actually pay. Doar might well consider why the agency might do such a thing and he might well conclude that it had ample reason to do so. He might well consider all the incentives that encourage judges to order inordinately high support levels. Huge sums of money paid to states for child support dollars collected are an obvious one. So are child support guidelines that bear little relation to the actual incremental dollars required to support children are another.
He might also consider other factors that militate against payment. The widespread refusal by family judges to enforce visitation orders is one good example. Many studies demonstrate that, when NC parents don’t have their visitation times interfered with, they’re far more likely to pay what they owe than if they have to fight for every minute of time with their kids. So one thing he could have recommended to the Obama Administration would be increasing OCSE’s budget for enforcement of visitation. But of course he didn’t.
What about the fact, regularly complained about by NC parents, that the money they pay goes not to their children but to a disliked ex-spouse. Nowhere is there any law or regulation requiring the money to be spent on the child. So when one parent pays $500 per month for little Andy or Jenny, but, then picks up the child for the alotted two days per fortnight and he/she is dressed in rags, dirty and unfed, the parent begins to wonder just where money is going. This does not encourage the parent to pay child support because he it looks very much like not child support at all. It’s a common problem with our child support system. It’s a problem that could be solved fairly easily. It’s a problem Doar ignores.
Then there’s reimbursement of welfare benefits that closely mirror the problem of child support payments not going to support the child. Unsurprisingly that’s because child support payments made for a child whose custodial parent received TANF benefits don’t go to the mother or the child, they go to the government. Poor fathers know this all too well and the system once again discourages payment. Most NC parents are all too happy to contribute to their children’s support, but when they know their hard-earned money is instead headed for government coffers, they’re far less enthusiastic.
Again, this is common knowledge, reported on often, but Doar wants to make the situation worse, not better.
Since the late 1990s, however, the number of TANF recipients has declined dramatically as poor single mothers went to work and sought assistance from other government programs (food stamps, Medicaid, housing help). While some advocates have suggested imposing the child-support requirement on recipients of these other, non-TANF forms of assistance, the administration has shown no interest.
More amazingly still, Doar seems to want his readers to believe that a non-custodial parent’s repaying to the government benefits received by the other parent in some way constitutes “taking responsibility” by the NC parent. How he figures that I have no idea. Clearly, in that situation, the NC parent has no responsibility to take and the custodial parent is absolved of responsibility by another person. This should be too basic to require explanation.
What’s occasioned Doar’s screed are the proposed changes to child support enforcement regulations that the OCSE published for comment late last year. Here’s a piece I wrote about the proposed changes and the National Parents Organization has taken a leading role in attempting to guide the Office in redirecting its policies.
Oddly, Doar acknowledges some of the problems that have long beset the child support enforcement system, agrees that changes are necessary, but cavils at, well, further changes.
In the past especially, orders for monthly child support were often out of line with what some low-income parents could be reasonably expected to pay. Arrearage balances could grow so high that they condemned parents to a lifetime of debt.
Over the years, however, much progress has been made in addressing these problems. Child-support programs have found ways to reduce arrears and to “right size” payment amounts for noncustodial parents who were willing to accept responsibility but had no way of paying excessive arrears or payments.
If “much progress has been made,” maybe Doar would explain to the rest of us why we see virtually every day roundups of people with massive arrearages. If we’ve seen all this progress, why does the State of New Jersey routinely accept payments by those arrested of between one and two cents per dollar owed? Why are we still sending the poor to jail for failure to pay?
The fact is that, much as Doar doesn’t want to admit it, vast amounts of child support arrears will never be and can never be collected. Those orders were established, as the OCSE admits, regardless of the obligor’s ability to pay. Downward modifications, notoriously difficult to obtain, were denied, usurious rates of interest (as high as 12% in many states) were applied along with other fees. All of that was morally wrong when it occurred as it still does. But more to the point, the practices meant levels of child support that were never going to be paid.
Some of the proposed changes make it easier for states to essentially write off those as bad debts, thereby freeing up resources to collect arrears from people who may actually be able to pay. Doar of course doesn’t like it.
His “bottom line” is parental responsibility. Too bad he demonstrated so little responsibility in his article.
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