Latest NJ Child Support Sweep Grosses 1.2 Cents on the Dollar

They’re at it again.  As this article tells us, the State of New Jersey has conducted this year’s second semiannual child support sweep recently (Courier Post, 12/12/10).  I reported on the last one and it looks like the results are, if anything, worse than last time’s.

We’re living through the worst economic times this country has known since the 1930s.  Although things have improved ever so slightly, there is no end in sight.  The facts are that unemployment will remain high and GDP growth low for the foreseeable future.

Undeterred by economic reality and possibly unaware of it, state legislatures act as if all is well, the economy is robust and people are working.  Oh, of course they know that their own budgets are so far under water that you need a bathyscaphe just to examine them.  But when it comes to child support, they seem to have not a clue that times are bad.

That’s why states keep trying to raise child support obligations in times of economic stress unknown to most Americans now living.  Just this year, Arizona’s effort to dramatically increase child support obligations was, if not defeated, at least beaten back for the time being. 

And, as Glenn Sacks reported two days ago, Fathers and Families was successful at helping to defeat an Ohio bill that would have raised child support payments by 27% on average.

What, you may ask, are these people thinking?  Don’t they know the basic facts about child support?  Dont’ they know that, according to the Office of Child Support Enforcement, some 63% of parents in arrears report earning $10,000 or less the previous year?  Don’t they know that the vast majority of what’s owed is not support but interest and penalties?  Don’t they understand that much of the reason for the arrearages is the inability of parents to ask for and receive timely downward modifications in support amounts to reflect changes in circumstances like loss of a job or major health problem?

If they don’t know those things, they should.  After all, it’s not like they’re closely guarded secrets.  A few minutes online will give anyone information that would let them know that the current child support regime in this country is riddled with concepts that are false, rules that contradict the very notion of child support and laws that violate even rudimentary concepts of due process.

Or those state legislators, so bent on doing what is obviously in no one’s interest, i.e. raising child support obligations during the deepest recession in 70 years, could simply read the linked-to article or this one and draw the obvious conclusions (Cape May County Herald, 12/14/10).

As I said, it’s “Sweeps” time in New Jersey again.  That’s the time when the police and sheriff’s deputies fan out across the state clutching warrants for the arrest of people who haven’t paid what they owe in child support.  Here are the grim facts:

Across the state, 953 warrants were served in 21 counties; a grand total of $233,000 was recovered which is 1.2% of what was owed (that compares with about 6% last time).  More specifically, in Camden County, about $1.3 million was owed and $14,000 collected; in Gloucester County, about $721,000 was owed and $13,856 collected.

More specifically still, in Cape May County, 24 people were arrested for failing to pay child support.  Here’s a list of the people, how much they owed and how much they paid.

•Michelle Lynch, owed $6,264 (2)
•Skye Giesecke, owed $4,424, paid $200
•Michael Needman, owed $6,315
•Jimmie Raines, owed $50,304.19, paid $1,000
•Gary Wilson, owed $7,758, paid $150
•Wayne Spaulding, owed $36,848.40 (2), paid $200
•Tracy Steere, owed $5,929.50, paid $1,500
•James Spyropoulous, owed $875, paid $300
•Gary Hans, owed $1,044.33, paid $100
•Clifford Hyson, owed $10,291
•Lyee Davenport, owed $47,926.98 (2), paid $500
•William McCullen, owed $1,594, paid $400
•Betsy Tripet, owed $5,939.50, paid $500
•William McClurkin, owed $19,597.57 (3), paid $300
•Gerald Greer, owed $54,256.08 (11), paid $700
•Steve Powell, owed $17,091
•Brian Gallager, owed $54,275.85, paid $150
•Diamond Heard, owed $17,152.87
•William L. Smith, owed $15,825
•William P. Smith, owed $57,869.36
•Brian Weaver, owed $4,091, paid $1,200
•Michael Williams, owed $5,206.25, paid $200
•Luis Mercado, owed $2,478, paid $300
•Ulises Gutierrez, owed $5,754.64

What does it all mean?  Here’s a hint: they can’t pay. 

Picture it for yourself; these people have had one or more police officers show up at their door with a warrant for their arrest; they’ve been handcuffed and placed in a police car and taken to a police station.  They’ve probably been booked and put in a cell.  At some point they’ve been taken before a judge.  By this time they understand that it’s either pay or go to jail.  And the results?  See for yourself.  The State of New Jersey spent who knows what to conduct its sweep and collected 1.2 cents on the dollar.

This is not difficult to figure out – too difficult for state legislatures, admittedly, but not for most people.  Here it is: times are hard; child support levels set when people had jobs no longer make sense when people don’t have jobs.  Family courts that refuse to do the obvious – grant downward modifications when circumstances change – are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

As countless people have said countless times, when parents are married and one loses a job, the family does what’s necessary to adjust to the new circumstances.  They tighten their belts; they cut back; they don’t do activities they otherwise would; expenditures once taken for granted now turn out to be superfluous. 

That’s how the world works everywhere but in family court (and the U.S. Congress).  In family court, when parents are divorced, the concept of belt-tightening for the custodial parent is viewed with horror.  Such a thing cannot be allowed to happen.

If the non-custodial parent falls behind, if penalties and interest accumulate, if his license to drive is taken away making finding another job more difficult, if he’s tossed into jail, making finding another job impossible, it’s considered par for the course.  

But admit the obvious – that a dad without a job can’t pay as much as a dad with a job?  Never.

And so the State of New Jersey can look forward to conducting the same exercise six months from now.  I can’t wait to find out what happens, although I have the sneaking suspicion that I already know.

Thanks to John for the heads-up.

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