Is Rep. Walsh a ‘Deadbeat’ or Just Too Poor to Pay?

It had to happen; it just had to.  Joe Walsh, Freshman Republican Congressman from Illinois, is reported to owe over $100,000 in back child support.  Whether he does or not, the report that he does has produced a plague of fevered opinion-making on the subject of child support.

Predictably, the outrage, both real and feigned is directed one way – toward the “deadbeat dad” narrative.  Here’s one example (Chicago Sun Times, 8/3/11).

Now keep in mind, I think parents should support their children and if Joe Walsh or anyone else is avoiding legitimate child support debt that he can afford to pay, I don’t have a bit of sympathy for him.  And I must mention that, after the story broke, Walsh took the opportunity to publicly pretend that the whole thing was a politically-motivated hit on him by the “liberal media.”

I have no doubt that opponents of Joe Walsh and his Tea Party backers are tickled pink at the revelations.  After all, it’s a bit rich to be hectored on fiscal responsibility by a guy who seems to have none of his own.  So Walsh should drop the pretense that, whatever the motivations of reporters and the papers they work for, he should get a pass for failing to pay what he legitimately owes.

And if that’s all there were to it, I wouldn’t be writing about the subject.  But it’s not.  Predictable as the sunrise, the linked-to article traffics more in myth than reality.

For starters, the headline tells us that the Walsh saga “sums up (child support) enforcement issues.”  Really?  The writer makes the claim and then drops it, providing no support for the proposition.

Then of course there are the obligatory references to “deadbeat dads.”  Does the writer not know about all the “deadbeat moms” out there?  Or does she, at this late date, opt to ignore them, the better to denigrate fathers?  I’ll put my money on the second horse.

Worse, writer Mary Mitchell is so incurious about her subject that she never once wonders how Walsh got so far behind, particularly since his oldest child was 15 when he and his wife divorced.  She asks not a question about the process of trying to modify support.  She shows no interest in or awareness of the problem of interest and fees that often dwarf actual support amounts.

No, she’s got a two-part mission – taking down fathers generally and Joe Walsh in particular.  Again, if there is a single mother in the country who doesn’t pay her child support, Mary Mitchell doesn’t let on about her.  That’s in spite of the fact that, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, mothers are as likely to default on their support obligations as are fathers.

She’s similarly dismissive of Walsh’s claim that he’s broke, a phenomenon that Mitchell calls “crying poor.”  Well, I certainly don’t know Walsh’s financial condition and neither does Mitchell, but he’s had a condominium foreclosed on and owes his campaign manager $20,000.  So it doesn’t look like he’s rolling in dough.

If true, that would put him in the same category as almost all of the fathers and mothers who’ve fallen behind on their support payments.  Overwhelmingly, they’re poor too.

As I’ve said before, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement reported that 63% of child support debtors report earning less than $10,000 and 79% report earning less than $20,000.  That led the OSCE to demand that courts start issuing orders that non-custodial parents can actually pay.  It also pointed out that the best way to keep everyone current was to establish summary procedures for modification based on changed circumstances.

That one report would tell anyone who read it that the problem of child support arrearages has a lot less to do with “deadbeat” parents than with poor ones.  Lack of money, exorbitant interest rates plus an intransigent court system that doggedly refuses to make modifications fast, easy and cheap to obtain guarantee that we’ll have a mountain of unpaid child child support.  And we do.

Just to sharpen the point a bit, local law enforcement officials across the country periodically conduct “sweeps” of parents behind on their payments.  Those are much ballyhooed in the news media, but what often takes a backseat in the reporting is how much is actually grossed in the sweeps.  As I reported recently, in it’s latest semi-annual sweep, the State of New Jersey grossed a grand total of 1.1 cents on the dollar of what’s owed.

What that tells us is that these people aren’t deadbeats who can pay but don’t.  They’re people who didn’t have much to begin with and likely got flattened by the latest economic downturn.  In short they’re the kind of people Mary Mitchell likes to look down her nose at.

Interestingly, Joe Walsh’s lawyer made a similar point.

As bad as all this looks, Walsh”s lawyer claims that the congressman “had no more problems with child support than any other average guy.’

That sounds about right.

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