New Jersey’s semi-annual sweep of child support debtors grossed 1.1% of what’s owed. Here’s a short article about it (NJ.com, 7/23/11).
The Garden State does this twice a year. Sheriff’s deputies fan out across the state arresting the major child support debtors. Slapped in irons and hauled off to jail, the non-custodial parents then come up with money to buy their way out of an extended stay behind bars.
So it’s always interesting to see just what the results are of these semi-annual raids. In the past they’ve been impressively unimpressive, and this year is no exception.
Here are the un-awe-inspiring totals: Number arrested – 1,074; total amount owed by those arrested – $18.7 million; total collected – $211,000.
The average amount owed per person is about $17,400; the average collected per person was $196. That’s a collection rate of 1.1%.
But this isn’t a story about the incompetence of law enforcement officials or the judiciary. It’s not a story about “deadbeat” parents. No, it’s a story about the child support system whose draconian penalties fall on those least able to either fight the system or pay what they owe.
Seven years ago, the Office of Child Support Enforcement published this report. It states that 63% of non-custodial parents behind on their payments report earning $10,000 per year or less. Seventy-nine percent earn $20,000 or less. Now it’s true that not all of those parents are reporting everything they earn. It’s part of the child support system’s perfidious nature that it drives a lot of people underground into a cash-only economy.
But if you report $10k, the chances that you’re actually earning a lot more are slim. And keep in mind, the OCSE report was seven years ago; a lot has changed in the American economy since then, and not for the better. Back then the unemployment rate was in the mid-5% range. Now it’s 9.2% with men’s unemployment well higher even than that.
So when we read an article that tells us that 1,074 non-custodial parents were arrested for not paying their child support, that’s the portrait of those parents. Overwhelmingly, they’re poor.
That often means they simply don’t have the money to pay the support ordered by the court. It also means they can’t hire a lawyer to get a modification. And since the poor are more likely than those better off to be poorly educated, representing themselves in a modification hearing is essentially a sure bet to fail.
And even if they are ultimately successful at getting the order modified, it’s likely many months after they lost their job or hit whatever wall that made paying impossible. Those were months during which their arrearages went up and up, with penalties and interest attached. Those parents can’t pay the original amounts, much less several months at a time stacked on top of interest.
Those are the folks New Jersey is spending who knows how much to arrest every six months and collect one cent on the dollar of what’s owed.
Needless to say, there’s a better way. First, as the OCSE has urged for a long time, family courts should set child support levels at what parents can pay. I know it’s astonishing that they don’t, but the OCSE has been exhorting them to for years to little effect. But setting support levels too high is a sure recipe for arrearages and pointless “sweeps” by law enforcement.
Second, states should reform their procedures for modifying support orders. As it is, those are simply too expensive and time-consuming for just about any parent who’s newly out of work. States should appoint special masters who do nothing but child support modifications, up or down. Those special masters should be tasked with hearing modification requests within two weeks of the time the motion is filed. Clerks in the master’s office should be trained to assist people filing for modifications by explaining what sort of evidence they need to bring to court to get the modification granted. The rules of evidence should be relaxed to allow documents and testimony that otherwise would be excluded as hearsay. Parent’s requesting modification should be able to represent themselves. There should be no new filing fees for modification requests.
Those expedited summary procedures would ultimately save parents time and the state money. Child support orders would more accurately reflect the parent’s ability to pay and arrearages wouldn’t build up while he/she waited to get a hearing. That would mean fewer police resources would be used to conduct twice-yearly sweeps.
The OCSE agrees; it’s recommendations are blunt.
The best way to reduce the total national child support debt is to avoid accumulating arrears in the first place. The best ways to avoid the accumulation of arrears are to set appropriate orders initially, modify orders via simple procedures promptly when family circumstances change, and immediately intervene when current support is not paid. Parents should share in the cost of supporting their children according to their ability. Designing a system that establishes appropriate orders will encourage payment of child support.
The child support system in this country is a disaster on many different fronts. For the most part, there are simple, commonsense ways to fix it. But it’ll take political will to do it. Sadly the poor don’t have much political clout.
Thanks to John for the heads-up.