I don’t have to tell you that the current nationwide recession is hurting millions of people across the country. With almost 10% of Americans unemployed and looking for work, states starting their fiscal years with huge deficits, and the federal government dealing with years of being overstretched financially, so many suffering families need help making ends meet. That includes families involved in the too often unfair, out of control child support system.
But, at least for some, there is hope. Yesterday, I spotted this article from the San Antonio Express-News. Apparently, Bexar County in that state is known for locking up more “deadbeat dads” than any other county in Texas. According to the article, it also “has one of the most effective job programs in the state for low- or no-income parents who want to work.”
The article from Craig Kapitan tells the story of Howard Wilson, an unemployed cook who was due to begin paying child support for his newborn daughter. Like many others during this recession, he had been having a tough time finding a job since the Denny’s where he worked closed a few months earlier. Lucky for him, though, Wilson was able to enter and take part in Bexar County’s NCP Choices program. That program, a collaboration between the Texas attorney general’s office and the Texas Workforce Commission, was implemented in 2005 for parents on public assistance who have fallen behind on their child support commitments. Last February, it was expanded to include parents new to the child support system who are at risk of not making those payments. Thanks to this program and that expansion to include people like Wilson, he found a job and was back making child support payments in as little as two weeks.
This program has been effective not just because it helps people like Howard Wilson (with roughly 200 participants enrolled), but also because it is cost-effective for the state. While other states are wasting valuable time and resources rounding up and imprisoning unemployed “deadbeat dads” who want to work and only recovering cents on the dollar in return, the 17 NCP Choices programs in Texas have collected an estimated $3 in child support for every $1 spent. Enrollees in these programs get what they need to find new jobs, and in return, they must do 30 hours per week of job searching while staying in touch with a career counselor.
I was excited to see that in this economy, a government entity is teaming with a nonprofit to do something to actually create and preserve jobs, as the article reports that the Cadena Reeves Justice Center, where participants receive their services, offers subsidized employment to help employers keep their newly placed employees. Also notable in the article are the quote from Betty Lopez, who helps run the Bexar County program, and the statement from child support court Judge James Rausch. While Betty points out that these programs, “offer judges an out, instead of putting them (parents) in jail,” Judge Rausch appears to look at these NCP Choices programs as a tool to make noncustodial parents get jobs with his statement, “A lot of these guys will say, ‘I can’t find a job.’ This allows us to respond, ‘Well here is a job.” It appears that no matter which side of the court reform argument one is on, the NCP Choices program looks like a good one.
I do realize that not every American is Howard Wilson. Not everyone has as positive a relationship with his child’s mother (the article points out that he is now engaged to the mother of his child), not every job market is as friendly to job seekers as the one that Wilson found, and not everyone fits what are surely narrow guidelines for inclusion in programs like these–in short, there are millions of ‘unemployed child support obligor’ stories ends as prettily as this one. I am not so naive as to think that a program like NCP Choices solves all of the problems involved in child support arrearages caused by periods of un- or underemployment. It is important to note, however, that, at least some governmental and nongovernmental organizations are enlightened enough to look beyond the ‘deadbeat dad’ label to see what can be done to help prevent the family tragedies that too often result from thoughtlessly enforced child support orders. If only there were more!