July 9, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The move toward more realistic child support policies is gaining momentum. That system has been called “broken” too many times to count for reasons this informative article makes clear (Foundation for Economic Education, 6/28/19).
The Abell Foundation issued a report authored by the former commissioner of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, Vicky Turetsky, who, during her time with the OCSE, worked tirelessly for reform.
The first problem with child support practices is that orders are often set at levels the obligor is unable to pay. That’s often because courts “impute income” to non-custodial parents. That is, they base their orders, not on actually earnings, but on what the court considers it possible for them to earn. The assumption being that parents commonly seek to lower their payments by reducing their employment. That of course may happen on occasion, but there’s essentially no evidence that it does so as a matter of course. After all, why would an adult damage his/her own standard of living just in order to damage that of the child he/she dearly loves?
The practice of setting support levels above what parents can pay became established in the 1980s due in part to an error in arithmetic by researcher Lenore Weitzman. She announced that her data showed women suffering a drop in their standard of living of 76% when they divorced. That alarmed other researchers whose numbers were nowhere near that. A decade later, Weitzman admitted that her data indicated a 24% decrease in living standards, but by then her research had formed the impetus for child support policies nationwide. State laws had been written to ameliorate a decrease in living standards that largely didn’t exist.
The FEE article quotes the Baltimore Sun:
“Child support orders set beyond the ability of noncustodial parents to comply push them out of low-wage jobs, drown them in debt, hound them into the underground economy, and chase them out of their children’s lives,” Vicki Turetsky wrote in the 55-page report. Much of the analysis is rooted in research by the Ruth H. Young Center for Families and Children at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
That highlights another shortcoming of the child support system: its draconian methods of enforcement hit almost exclusively at the poor. As Turetsky’s OCSE reported, well over 60% of those in arrears on child support report earnings of under $10,000 per year. So the enforcement mechanisms deny parents mostly to poor children, i.e. arguably those who need them most.
Perhaps the most wrongheaded enforcement mechanism is the suspension of the driver’s licenses of those parents who fall behind. Countless commentators have noted the obvious – that doing so only makes paying harder.
A report cited by the Abell Foundation,
states that 42% of individuals who had their licenses suspended jobs as a result of the suspension, 45% of those who lost jobs could not find another job, and 88% of those that were able to find another job reported a decrease in income.
Needless to say, making it harder on non-custodial parents to pay isn’t a sensible way to collect child support.
One of the best cures for what ails that system is equal parenting. When each parent has equal or almost equal time with the children post-divorce, the need for child support diminishes considerably. As long as a parent only has to support the child when little Andy or Jenny is in their care, there’s little need for either parent to pay the other, although sometimes it may be necessary.
Still, 50/50 parenting time isn’t always feasible, so child support will always be with us. That’s why it’s urgent to get right a system that supports children and doesn’t expect the impossible of parents. Hopefully, we’re headed in that direction.