Study: Low-Income Parents Bear Brunt of Child Support Punishments

Hard on the heels of the report that the province of Ontario will begin impounding the automobiles of child support debtors on December 1, comes a study of child support in Alberta by academic Paul Millar.

Millar is at Nipissing University in Ontario.  He’s the one I’ve mentioned several times for his book “The Best Interests of Children: An Evidence-Based Approach,” in which he skewers many aspects of the child custody policies of family courts.

His most salient conclusion is that, although family courts overwhelmingly award primary custody to mothers, there is in fact no data to suggest that they make better parents than do fathers or that children’s outcomes are better in maternal care.  In short, although courts daily intone the mantra of “the best interests of the child,” they only use the words.  What they do is something else entirely.

His new study appears in the Canadian Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 25, No. 2.  It’s entitled “Punishing Our Way Out of Poverty: The Prosecution of Child-Support Debt in Alberta, Canada.”  The title is tongue-in-cheek.  Millar in no way believes that we’re punishing our way out of poverty.

The title refers to the fact that, back in the early 1980s, there occurred an odd confluence of conservative and radical feminist agendas.  Conservatives wanted to privatize as much as they could; radical feminists wanted to find ways to penalize men and damage families that they considered the source of much “oppression” of women.  Those to streams met at child support.

For conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, child support was to be a private matter – not the responsibility of the state.  Radical feminists seized on a “study” by Lenore Weitzman that purported to find that women were impoverished by divorce.

The fact that Weitzman’s work was shoddy in the extreme deterred them not a bit.  The most glaring error was arithmetical.  As Professor Sanford Braver has pointed out, what Weitzman claimed was a 73% decline in women’s standard of living post-divorce was actually a 27% decline.  Simply put, she’d subtracted the wrong figure from 100%.  But it just so happened that the figure she used answered radical feminist needs a lot better than the actual one.

So they went with what they wanted rather than what they had, and so, it seems did everyone else.  Writing in 1998, Braver called Weitzman’s figure “probably…the most widely known and influential social science result of the last twenty years.”  At that time, it had been quoted in literally hundreds of newspapers, magazines, social science articles, law review articles and court opinions.  President Clinton cited it in one of his budget requests to Congress.

Needless to say, state and provincial legislative bodies weren’t immune to the virus, and the laws they passed reflected the fact.  Across the U.S. and Canada, child support guidelines were issued with the specific intention of alleviating the (largely non-existent) poverty into which mothers were believed to plunge post-divorce.

And along with drastically higher levels of child support came what has now become a seemingly endless parade of punitive measures against non-custodial parents including incarceration, suspension of passports,  licenses to drive and other licenses and certifications required to maintain employment.  As I’ve said numerous times, measures that prevent non-custodial parents from earning a living contradict reasoned child support policies.

Millar’s data come from the Solicitor General of Alberta’s office.  They concern some 400 non-custodial parents (fewer than 2.4% of whom were mothers) imprisoned for failing to pay in full.  He also uses census data from the Canadian government statistical service, Statistics Canada.

Predictably, the heavy weight of child support punishments falls disproprotionately on the poor and members of ethnic minorities.  So while the same percentage of whites go to jail for child support debt as exist in the general population of the province, over three times the percentage of aboriginals and over five times the number of blacks do.

Likewise, some 30% of those in prison for debt are unemployed.  That means that 70% have some job or other, but that fact obscures another more relevant one.  Some 82.4% of those in prison for child support arrearages have either a high school education or less.  The inescapable conclusion is that, while many of them have jobs, they are poor ones.  Astonishingly,

The marginal hourly wage after taxes and child support for some low-income paying parents was, in some cases, less than $1 per hour.

So it should come as no surprise that police sweeps of delinquent parents net pennies on the dollar.  Faced with paying up or going to jail, overwhelmingly these parents go to jail because they are unable to pay.  As Millar writes,

The design of the guidelines ensures that they produce the most severe impact on those with the greatest economic vulnerability–that is, the unemployed, those with lower levels of education, and other vulnerable groups.

In the area of due process of law, or the lack thereof, it appears that debtors are subject to the discretion of child support enforcement agents.  These are not judges, but bureaucrats who are empowered by law and regulation to apply penalties or not, increase them or not, and woe betide the debtor who is perceived by the agent as – that most dreaded of words – uncooperative.

The punitive power of the state therefore bypasses due process of law altogether and is placed in the hands of administrative workers who may or may not understand the concept and may or may not care.

And never mind that the debtor can be forced into prison by court order, his right to an attorney is essentially non-existent and he can be jailed, not on the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but on the civil one of preponderance of evidence.

In my previous piece on child support, I suggested that the system looks gratuitous in its anti-father bent.  Nothing Millar says in his new piece gives me cause to think otherwise.

Thanks to Jeremy for the heads-up.

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