The practice of adding interest to child support arrearages should be abolished everywhere and for all time. Carnell Williams is a good example of why. Read about it here (News-Democrat 8/1/10). Earlier this year, Williams’ debt to the State of Illinois was over $160,000. Through an amnesty program, he got it reduced to about $95,000. But even that amount will never be paid off. In fact, if my calculations are correct, the longer he pays, the higher his arrearage will become. Three of the children Williams is paying for are adults with children of their own.
“I don’t know why he’s still paying and we’re grown,”
said Williams’ daughter Carnella Williams, 29, a Missouri school teacher.
From what I can gather from the article, Williams has had a spotty work history. When he’s worked, it’s been at pretty menial jobs – bus driver, jail guard – and since he hasn’t worked steadily, he got behind on his child support. When he lost a job, he would have been unable to hire an attorney, go to court and get his support obligation reduced to reflect his new absence of earnings. When he got behind, the interest started kicking in. The State of Illinois charges 9%, which is pretty reasonable compared to states like Massachusetts (18%) or California (10%). But when you’re unemployed, even 1% would still be more than you can pay, so the arrearages, instead of staying the same while you look for work, go up. And up and up, depending on the rate of interest charged and how long you’re out of work. That’s exactly the situation Carnell Williams finds himself in. He’s now disabled and receives $1,062 per month in disability payments. Well, he doesn’t actually receive that.
A monthly deduction of $99 for Medicare added to $435 taken out for unpaid child support, leaves Williams with $528 a month to live on. After he pays his $360 monthly rent, $168 remains to pay for utilities, food, a cell phone and a bag of cat food for a skinny kitten that wandered in off the street. He has no car and depends on food pantries when his cash runs out.
So we’ve got a man living in abject poverty, but that’s not the real bad news. The bad news is that he’ll always be there. He’ll live that way until the day he dies. His current indebtedness is about $95,000. At 9% per annum, the interest alone will run about $8,550, while his $435 monthly payment totals $5,220 per year. In other words, he’s adding about $3,330 per year to his debt. Even Sisyphus had it better than Williams. If Williams lives to be, say, 80, his children will be in their forties, fifties and sixties, he’ll still be paying for them, still be living in poverty and be about $196,000 in debt. Inspector Jauvert would love it. To give an idea of the folly of piling interest on top of child support indebtedness, recall that in the early 90s, neither California nor New York did so. But California started charging interest in 1992, while New York stood pat. At that time, arrearages in California amounted to about $3.2 billion and in New York they were about $2.6 billion. Now, New York’s total child support arrearage is about $3.3 billion while California’s has ballooned to about $18 billion. And let’s not forget who these child support obligors are. They’re overwhelmingly poor. The Office of Child Support Enforcement reports that some 63% of obligors report under $10,000 per year in income. Now some of that is underreporting, but consider this: a few weeks ago, the State of New Jersey conducted a statewide sweep of those behind on their child support payments. Hundreds of people were picked up and given a choice – pay up or go to jail. Most of us would pay if we could, but what New Jersey actually collected in that sweep was six cents on the dollar. In one county, it was two cents. Stated another way, when faced with paying what they owed or going to jail, six parents in 100 paid. Child support is intended to provide for children, not trap non-custodial parents, 84% of whom are dads, in permanent penury But that’s what child support interest does. Just ask Carnell Williams.