Arkansas Stops License Suspension for Child Support Arrears

August 16, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The State of Arkansas has finally wised up (Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 8/11/18).

Nearly 10,000 people whose driver’s licenses are suspended for failing to pay child support will get their licenses back if they reach agreement to resume payments under a new program this month.

Stated another way, the state is finally admitting that suspending drivers’ licenses for failure to pay child support was a bad idea in the first place. That of course is exactly what countless commentators have been saying for decades now. Suspending drivers’ licenses makes obtaining and keeping gainful employment vastly harder than it otherwise would be. That makes paying child support harder not easier. This is not hard to figure out, but it took the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement about a decade to finally tell states that they could opt out of that particularly nonsensical program. And it’s taken Arkansas even longer to get around to doing so. Better late than never, I suppose.

The program will allow those with suspended licenses to work with their local child support office to reach an agreement to resume their payments, the department said in its news release. If they reach an agreement, the Office of Child Support Enforcement will release any related holds on the individual’s driver’s license.

Now, that might sound like the state won’t accept just any agreement with a parent in arrears, but don’t believe it. My guess is that state officials will do just about anything short of dropping to their knees to beg to get one of those agreements. Face it, they’re under no allusions about the inefficacy of the program or about whether most of these people can actually pay what they owe.

Asked if the department has a goal regarding how much it expects to collect through the program, [state finance department spokesperson Scott] Hardin said, “Our hope is not to reach a certain amount, but to engage as many of these parents as possible, hopefully resulting in ongoing payments.”

That of course means that the state expects no significant influx of support payments. That’s only realistic. After all, we often see states such as New Jersey conducting “sweeps” of parents in arrears. That means the police arrest them and then release them if the parent comes up with any money or promises to. They routinely bag between 1% and 2% of what’s owed. In other words, the parents who haven’t paid overwhelmingly can’t pay, a fact that accords nicely with the OCSE’s own findings that parents in arrears tend strongly to be poverty stricken. According to OCSE, some 63% of parents behind on their payments report earning under $10,000 per year.

That’s one thing the state is admitting. The other is that suspending drivers’ licenses doesn’t improve matters for anyone.

“With a driver’s license suspended, the parent may have issues pursuing new employment while also likely limiting the time spent with a child due to lack of transportation,” he said. “Through ‘Back in the Driver’s Seat,’ the parent demonstrates he or she is committed to getting back on track, receiving this important tool, [a] driver’s license, in return.”

There’s not a lot about the child support system that makes sense and suspending drivers’ and occupational licenses is about as senseless as it gets. That such a policy was ever put into effect flew in the face of basic commons sense. That it took so long to be abandoned is the same.

Still, doing so is a step in the right direction, albeit a short one. But hey, as long as Arkansas and other states are giving back drivers’ licenses, why not take another step? Why not, say, start setting child support orders that parents can actually pay? That’s one the OCSE started recommending 12 years ago. Maybe I’m just feeling daffy, but if we can do one, we can do the other, right?

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