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Posts tagged ‘debt’

Social Media Attack: Arizona Is Enemy of ‘Deadbeat Dads’

gov-Arizona
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced yesterday the state would begin publicly shaming fathers who owe child support by posting on Twitter their names, photos, and the amount of child support they owe. The Twitter account, run by the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES), has already shamed its first dad — and Ducey plans to shame a whole lot more.

“For too long, you’ve been able to remain anonymous, able to skirt your financial and legal responsibilities with no shame,” Ducey said during his State of the State address on Monday. “Well here’s a new one for all the deadbeat dads out there: effective immediately, the state is going to begin posting the photos, names and money owed by these losers to social media, with the hashtag ‘#deadbeat.’”

The issue dates back to a 1999 law requiring the DES to post names and photos of individuals who owe child support to its website. Ducey, who said he’s referred to as the “hasthtag governor,” apparently wants to take it a step further for 421 parents who owe what the state considers to be a significant amount in overdue child support, a DES spokeswoman told CNN Monday. Ducey ended the announcement with a stern ultimatum: “If you don’t want your embarrassing — unlawful — and irresponsible behavior going viral: man up, and pay up.” (Doesn’t all the hubris seem strange in light of all the trouble the state of Arizona is having dealing with property liens and back child support issues?)

from the Verge

Sure, this is unconstitutional, but the downward-spiraling United States doesn’t care about that. Are you worried about an online confrontation? You should be. First, if you are stupid enough to blog and use social media with your real name, perhaps you deserve what you are getting when they find your account and start sending you messages. My advice is to close your current accounts if they are in your legal name and open others – or simply try changing your name on your current account. That just might do the job, but it won’t stop them from broadcasting your name. I can imagine that some hackers like Anonymous are going to go after Arizona’s public accounts and social media. After all, these bullies aren’t all that savvy – just bullies with an attitude. – MJR

Maryland, Prison & Unrealistic Child Support

As lawmakers meet in Annapolis this month to examine possible reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, we hope they will take a hard look at a related issue as well: The plight of inmates who fall behind on their court-ordered child-support payments, which continue to accumulate while they’re behind bars and which leave them with crushing debts they cannot possibly pay off when they are eventually released. [“American Poverty: An American Criminal Subclass“}

That’s because inmates who are ordered by the courts to make child support payments that seem reasonable when they’re working lose those incomes — but not their obligation to pay — while they are incarcerated. The amounts in arrears can climb into the tens of thousands of dollars, and because these convicts emerge from prison saddled with a criminal record, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for them to find a job that allows them to pay off what they owe. All too easily, their involvement with the state’s child-support enforcement authorities can leave them with a lifetime of indebtedness.

The consequences for them and their children can be devastating. Sixty-five percent of the inmates in Maryland’s prisons are parents, and most of them want to participate in some way in their children’s upbringing. When they can’t, it’s likely to not only alienate them from their partners and children but also to compound the problems they face finding a job, getting an education and avoiding returning to a life of crime.

Some inmates come out of prison so overwhelmed by accumulated debt and shamed by their inability to pay that they are actually discouraged from contacting their families. Others feel the only way to meet their obligations is by selling the drugs that got them incarcerated in the first place. Both are inimical to policies aimed at enlisting the support of families in the re-entry process.

The federal government and some states, including Maryland, have explored pilot re-entry programs that match up newly released inmates with service providers, such as the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, that offer temporary housing as well as job training and employment counseling. But such programs are small compared to the need. States must begin focusing on preparing incarcerated parents for release earlier and helping them navigate child-support issues so they don’t emerge from prison thousands of dollars in arrears with little prospect of ever paying such sums off.

In Maryland, custodial parents are entitled to collect child support even when the non-custodial parent is incarcerated. If an inmate can’t pay, and if the family is eligible for public assistance, the state pays an equivalent amount to the custodial parent, then seeks to recover the funds upon the incarcerated parent’s release.

Under a law passed in 2012, state authorities can temporarily reduce or suspend inmates’ financial obligations while they’re in prison. But they can’t alter the terms of a child support order issued by the courts to reflect an inmate’s reduced earning capacity while locked up, nor can they forgive accumulated debt that is owed directly to a custodial parent rather than to the state. [“Unemployment, Child Support & Bradley Law“; “Bradley Law and Real Justice“; “The Bradley Amendment Child Support Mess“; “New Legal Research Available on Bradley Amendment“]

Nevertheless, Maryland could significantly ease inmates’ re-entry into society if its laws allowed child support officials to modify child support orders to reflect inmates’ actual earning power on release. The state already has a debt abatement program that allows inmates have their cumulative debt reduced by half if they make their support payments on time for 12 straight months; if they continue doing so for 12 more months the state can forgive entire amount remaining in arrears.

That represents progress, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that most recently incarcerated parents still won’t earn enough to make regular payments at the same level that was set based on their earning power before they went to prison. So they fall behind on their payments again and the vicious cycle of debt accumulation resumes.

Lawmakers could address this problem by authorizing The Department of Human Resources to modify court-ordered child support payments to make them more accurately reflect the current earning power of recently released inmates. That simple change would allow many more inmates to pay off what they owe the state as reimbursement for public assistance to their families, but leave undisturbed payments owed directly to a non-custodial parent. Moreover, it would cost the state relatively little to forgive debts that, in any case, stood very little chance of ever being collected.

Critics may charge that such a plan amounts to a free ride for deadbeat dads and moms. It isn’t. Rather, it’s simply a recognition that most people in Maryland’s prisons are poor and that saddling them with mountains of debt for unpaid child support is counterproductive. Nationwide, four out of 10 single parents live below the poverty line. Nobody’s is going to get rich because of a change in the law that acknowledges that reality. It’s in everyone’s interest to bring parents recently released from prison out of the shadows so they can begin to fulfill their obligations to their families and their communities.

from the Baltimore Sun

Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents With Criminal Records and Their Children

InmateNearly four decades of mass incarceration and over-criminalization have made the United States the world leader in incarceration and arrests. The number of Americans in federal and state prisons and jails has quintupled over the past four decades. As a result, nearly 2.3 million Americans are behind bars today. The U.S. incarceration rate is at more than six times the average across developed nations. “Communities of color” and “men of color” are hit hardest, with black men six times more likely and Latino men two-and-a-half times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

Between 70 million and 100 million Americans, or as many as one in three American adults have a criminal record. Many have been convicted of only minor offenses, such as misdemeanors and many have arrests that never led to a conviction. Regardless of whether an individual has been incarcerated, having a criminal record often carries a lifetime of consequences, lasting long after that person has paid his or her debt to society.  A minor criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty, while presenting obstacles to employment, housing, education, training, public assistance, financial empowerment, and other lifestyle choices.

dad-with-kidsWhile the effects of parental incarceration on children and families are well-documented, less appreciated are the family consequences that stem from the barriers associated with having a criminal record. A child’s life chances are strongly tied to his or her circumstances during childhood. Thus, these barriers may not only affect family stability and economic security in the short term but also may damage a child’s long-term well-being and outcomes.

Nearly half of U.S. children now have at least one parent with a criminal record. Parental criminal records create significant challenges among low-income parents and their families.

Income
Parents with criminal records have lower earning potential, as they often face major obstacles to securing employment and receiving public assistance.

Savings and assets
Mounting criminal justice debts and unaffordable child support arrears severely limit families’ ability to save for the future and can trap them in a cycle of debt.

Education
Parents with criminal records face barriers to education and training opportunities that would increase their chances of finding well-paying jobs and better equip them to support their families.

Housing
Barriers to public as well as private housing for parents with criminal records can lead to housing instability and make family reunification difficult if not impossible.

Family strength and stability.
Financial and emotional stressors associated with parental criminal records often pose challenges in maintaining healthy relationships and family stability.

Some States Are Cutting Poor Dads A Deal On Unpaid Child Support

child support shacklesMany states have opted for oppression when it comes down to child support debt. A few wiser minds are prevailing in a few places. When the state of Maryland wanted to reach dads who were behind on their child support payments, it started in the boarded-up blocks of West Baltimore, in neighborhoods marked by drugs, violence and unemployment.

In just four zip code areas, the state identified 4,642 people who owed more than $30 million in back child support. Most of that was “state-owed,” meaning that rather than going to the child through the custodial parent, it’s supposed to reimburse taxpayers for welfare paid to the child’s mother.

This is a source of great resentment for many men, who say they want their money to go to their children. But most who owe it can’t pay anyway, as they earn less than $10,000 a year.

slavery to children“So even if we use taxpayer dollars to chase ’em down, and we catch ’em, right, and we go into their pockets, there’s nothing in there,” says Joe Jones of Baltimore’s Center for Urban Families.

Are they deadbeat?

Joseph DiPrimio, head of Maryland’s child support enforcement office, doesn’t like that expression. “I think that’s vulgar. I don’t use it,” he says. DiPrimio prefers “dead broke.”

“We’re talking about individuals that are economically challenged, they’re underemployed, but they want to do the right thing,” he says.

Unpaid child support in the U.S. has climbed to $113 billion, and enforcement agencies have given up on collecting much of it. They say too many men simply don’t have the money.

What’s more, research shows that high child-support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless that they give up trying to pay it.

Breaking Through The Distrust

ecard father bradley amdLike a growing number of state government officials, Maryland’s DiPrimio wanted to make parents an offer. But he needed their trust, and that was a problem.

Research shows high child support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless that they give up trying to pay it.

And sting operations to round up parents who owed child support have happened all over the country, including Baltimore. In a typical ruse, agencies have sent fake letters telling parents they won tickets to a football bowl game, for instance — but when they showed up to collect, they were arrested instead.

father-sonTo break through years of distrust, Maryland sent letters to parents with the logo of the Center for Urban Families, a nonprofit in West Baltimore that provides job training and other help to poor families.

They made this offer: If the parent takes the center’s month-long employment training course and lands a job, the state will forgive 10 percent of his or her child support debt. If they complete a Responsible Fatherhood program, the state will write off another 15 percent. One of the first persons to sign up was a mother, though the vast majority of noncustodial parents are men.

In a separate “debt compromise” program, Maryland will also write off 50 percent of a parent’s child support debt if they maintain monthly payments for a year.

fathersrightsResponse has been slow. In two years, slightly more than 100 parents have signed on. Many of them attend fatherhood meetings like one held on a recent Wednesday night. Two dozen men — 20-something to middle age, in sweats and in suits — sit in a large square.

Some complain their exes won’t let them see their child if they haven’t paid child support. Others don’t understand why it doesn’t count as support when they take their kids out to eat, or buy them clothes — or say they would do those sorts of things for their kids if their child support obligation wasn’t so heavy.

Mostly, like 30-year-old Lee Ford, they say it’s so hard to find work

“You telling me no matter what, I gotta pay. But I can’t get a job to work to save my soul,” he says.

Group leader Eddie White cuts no slack. “If you know you got a criminal record, sure it’s gonna be hard for you to get a job. But it don’t mean you can’t work,” White says.

A big part of this class is also educational. White asks the men what a person who is paying child support should do if he gets laid off or loses his job.

“There you go, that’s the word. Immediately,” White says. “Immediately ask the court for an adjustment.”

Other Approaches To Debt Relief

Maryland’s program is part of a larger effort to keep impoverished parents from racking up child support debt in the first place.

baby moneySome states are trying to speed up the cumbersome process of adjusting an order when a parent loses a job. Ohio has experimented with sending simple reminders — by phone, mail or text — to parents who need to send in monthly payments. Texas has reached out to newly incarcerated parents, to let them know they can apply to have their payments reduced while in prison — something not all states allow.

“We sent out a teaser postcard trying to combat the ostrich effect,” says Emily Schmidt, a research analyst with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, who helped with the Texas effort.

Schmidt says there was concern that someone going through the emotional transition of incarceration wouldn’t likely be thinking about child support, and may not even open a letter from the state. So they printed the postcard on blue paper to stand out, and, taking a cue from marketers, it said, “Four easy steps to lowering your child support.”

After 100 days, the response rate among parents was up 11 percent, “a very low-cost intervention for a fairly dramatic effect,” Schmidt says.

barack obamaThe Obama administration wants to “right size” child support orders from the start, and has proposed regulations to make sure they are set according to what parents actually earn. Officials say some jurisdictions base orders on a full-time minimum wage, even if a parent earns far less. They say this can backfire, leaving so little money after a parent’s wages are garnished that he or she quits and works underground instead.

The White House’s proposals also would provide more job training for parents with child support debt — something Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says is a good investment.

“More fathers will get a job, more fathers will have earnings, and more fathers will use those earnings to pay child support,” he says.

So far, that’s what’s happened in Baltimore. The numbers are small. But the amount of child support that’s been paid is more than double the amount of debt written off.

Maryland wants to expand its child support debt forgiveness program, hoping to help more parents to pay what they can.

How America’s Child Support System Failed To Keep Up With The Times

clinton-child-support-celebration
When the U.S. child support collection system was set up in 1975 under President Gerald Ford — a child of divorce whose father failed to pay court-ordered child support — the country, and the typical family, looked very different from today.

And as the nation’s social, economic and demographic landscape has shifted, the system has struggled to keep up. Cynthia Osborne, director of the Child and Family Research Partnership and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, explains how these changes have outpaced the decades-old system — and left the country with more than $113 billion in unpaid child support.

Walk us through what the child support collection system looked like in 1975. What issues was it designed to address? What did the typical family look like?

It was officially launched in 1975, which is when the government established Section IV-D of the Social Security Act. No-fault divorce had recently been passed, and there was a rapid increase in divorce.

In 1975, this system would try to ensure that after a divorce, we would try to replicate what the household looked like prior to the divorce with regards to the children’s well-being. So the father would continue to provide income to the child, and the mother normally would get the child following a divorce in terms of physical custody, and she would use the resources from the father.

The whole system was set up in a way to try to bring back what the nuclear family looked like prior to a divorce, and nearly everyone who entered into the child support system was a product of divorce. There were very few nonmarital births at that time.

During that time period, divorce was one of the single greatest predictors that a woman, especially a woman with children, would fall into poverty. The research indicated that fathers typically gained financially following a divorce, even though they were ordered to pay child support, and mothers typically lost financially, they had both the children and reduced income. And so the child support system was hoping to try to offset some of that.

The 1970s and ’80s saw profound social, economic and demographic changes. What sort of shifts were occurring, and how did they affect child support?

There was this huge increase in divorce, and a beginning rise in nonmarital childbearing that was nearly nonexistent in the early 1970s — then becoming, by the mid-1980s, up into the 20 percent of all children.

Those were big changes that were occurring in the family, and simultaneously there were gains and losses in the labor market. There were more and more women who were starting to enter into the labor market during both the 1970s and ’80s. And the question about what women’s role was, vis-a-vis caring for their child and working and so forth, was starting to be really front and center in the discussion of women’s place within the family and the economy.

Still, though, the majority of women, when they became mothers, were the primary caretakers and not the primary breadwinners. The single mothers also were not very likely to work. So married moms were staying at home to take care of the kid. Single moms were on welfare, and our welfare rolls were expanding quite rapidly.

The 1980s [also] saw a huge boom in the return to college education, and this is especially true for men. And those who got this education— with higher skills and higher-wage jobs — were starting to really pull away from men who had lower levels of education or moderate levels of education. And men at the very bottom, who had no high school education especially, were starting to lose in real terms of their value of earnings. And that’s really a trend that’s continued until today.

And when we think about who those men are partnered with, often they’re partnered with the same women who are more and more likely to be dependent on welfare rolls — during this time there was a huge increase in welfare rolls — and also mostly among less educated women.

So you now had a growing number of women who were either divorced or not married who were seeking public assistance, and a growing number of less educated men who had very few prospects in the labor market, and declining prospects at that.

It really can’t be overstated how important in the whole welfare reform debate [it] was that one of the fastest entrants into the labor market were women with children under the ages of 5. And it became harder and harder to justify that we should have a system that would support one group of women to stay at home with their children while this other group of women was choosing to enter into the labor market.

And all this set the stage for welfare reform?

Yes, with that kind of backdrop — with two earners becoming necessary, women making this conscious decision to enter into the labor market and the general dismay about the existing welfare reforms system — we started really to think seriously about how we should do this differently, and what should we expect of moms and so forth, and I think that’s why the work requirements became so steep in the welfare reform debate.

And with child support, by the mid-1990s when all of these reforms were being put into place, nonmarital childbearing had risen from being something that was not very pervasive to nearly one-third of all births, 25 to 28 percent. Now, it’s at 41 to 42 percent.

What were the hallmarks of the 1996 welfare reform?

Welfare reform really did punctuate this idea that fathers should be responsible for providing for their children, that the state will do it in limited circumstances, but that we want the fathers to be the ones who are responsible for this. And there was a very strong notion at that point that men who weren’t paying for their child support were not involved in their children’s lives, were just deadbeat and avoiding the system.

The Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) made it so that the guidelines had to be more specific, and that the states had to enforce them more carefully. It changed what the performance measures were for states — basically, if you set an order, you have to collect on it and there could be penalties if you didn’t. And it really punctuated the idea that child support is a direct link with welfare, that there really isn’t a way for a mom who’s going to go on public assistance to avoid seeking child support.

In 1994 our rolls on welfare were some of the largest that they had been; they had really ballooned up to the point where upwards of 7 percent of kids were on welfare rolls. There was no end in sight because of the increase in nonmarital childbearing and who was now coming into the system was a different family type than what the system was initially set up to accommodate. And that, I think, remains one of the biggest challenges of our system.

And so the initial system was set up to replicate the nuclear family of dad as breadwinner, mom as homemaker, and now you have families in which mom and dad may have never lived together. They may have lived together when the child was born for a short period of time. They may or may not have shared resources. The father may have been contributing or not contributing.

And that gets us to the massive amount of unpaid child support — $113 billion and counting.

Right. Each state does it differently, but Texas will determine what a noncustodial parent’s income is. If he says zero, well, there isn’t zero child support, there will often be a presumption that he should be working full time, full year at at least minimum wage. So the judge will often set what’s called a minimum wage order, and it’s about $215 a month in Texas, which is about 20 percent of your net income of that. So here is a father who is now going to owe $215 a month plus about $50 a month in medical support. And he did not disclose that he had any income at the time that he established those awards.

It could be even worse, it could be — and this happens very often — that that man comes in, but his child is 2 years old. And now, either he’s been evading for two years, or he didn’t know he had this child, or they were together for almost all that time, but now they’ve separated. There could be lots of different reasons, but the child’s now 2 years old. The judge could order at that time that not only does he owe $200 each month moving forward, but he owes $200 a month for those two years …

Even if they were together but not married?

That’s right. And so this back child support is something that’s very real. A lot of the men start off in this hole that they just simply cannot dig themselves out of. For some of these guys, having a $5,000 arrears payment, it would be like a middle income person having a $50,000 debt that they’re just supposed to somehow work their way out of. It feels almost impossible.

What about the people who argue that this just doesn’t make sense?

I think it is actually not a simple answer. We do need to feel like men are being held accountable for their children, or noncustodial parents are supporting their children in some way. I do think that it’s reasonable for people to say somehow men have to demonstrate that they are going to provide for their children. Even if it is $200 a month and even if they don’t have a job, we are going to hold them accountable.

That just ignores, though, the fact that we can say that, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be able to pay it. We often know that if they’re not able to pay their child support formally, that they’re less likely to be able to contribute informally. They’re going to stay away from the child; they’re going to be less involved.

So although it makes sense on some level that we want to find a way to hold these dads accountable, in fact, what we’re doing is making it less likely that he’s going to be engaged in his child’s life by providing informally or being involved in other sorts of ways, and it’s going to cause difficulties in the co-parenting relationship between the mom and the father.

And for those reasons, there are proposals by the Obama administration — and other folks have been advocating this for quite a while — that say, let’s set what we call right-sized orders, that we actually take into account what he actually has the ability to pay when we establish these child support orders, and that we’re hoping that if he pays $25 a month now, that we can modify that order later when he gets more income and he’ll pay a little more and so forth.

This applies also to fathers who are incarcerated. We have a huge number of fathers who are incarcerated at some point in their child’s life. But it has not been a material reason to alter your child support award amount. So that’s another change proposed by the Obama administration, that if you are incarcerated, that we modify the child support order in some way to reflect that you cannot earn an income during that time.

In Texas, the average arrears payment that a father owes who’s been incarcerated coming out of prison is $8,000. When he comes out with high levels of arrears, he’s less likely to enter into the formal labor market and have his wages immediately garnished, so it just sends him back to the underground economy and the chances of recidivism and incarceration are really high.

Ultimately, then, what’s the purpose of child support system?

The states’ incentives really are to set amounts that can be collected on that make it look like they are reaching collection goals. But the performance measures at the federal level are based on the proportion that you collect based on the proportion that’s established.

So the states could benefit if they move to this more right-sized orders approach. But we have to be careful that that big dollar amount out there of what we’re collecting doesn’t become the driving force of how to maintain our child support enforcement system.

To be perfectly honest, I think if I could be queen for the day, in today’s families, I would change the presumption that there is an equal division of time and an equal division of responsibility for providing for that child. That’s not going to work for every family. Some of them have never been contributing, some have both been contributing but at disproportionate amounts.

But if we started with the 50-50 presumption, then the judge could work with the families to say, well, how do we get to some form of equality that works for you guys?

If we really started with this presumption that we’re going to jointly care for our children, even though the parents are not married to each other, and then let’s work out a system that seems fair in both the amount of time that we’re spending and the amount of resources that we’re spending, that it costs to raise this particular child, it’s a lot more work on the part of the state to figure out what that is, but it just feels like that would be more fair.

For our low-income guys who can’t afford anything, the moms are having to work, why don’t they provide the child care? We’re not ready to go that way with our families, but our families have changed so much, we need a system that starts to keep up with them some way.

from NPR

Child Support: Income That Doesn’t Exist’

clinton-child-support-celebration

Human rights in the USA

“When people have orders that they can’t comply with, it doesn’t motivate them to work and pay. It does the opposite,” says Turetsky of the Office of Child Support Enforcement.

She says too many men quit jobs, turn down promotions or go underground when courts set child support orders too high. One problem, she says, is that when there’s no evidence of income, many jurisdictions “impute” it, often basing payments on a full-time minimum wage job.

“I’m going to call it magical thinking,” Vicki Turetsky says. “You could call it the income we think you should have. But the bottom line is that it is income that does not exist.”

The child support system was set up four decades ago, and Turetsky says it seems stuck there — as if a man with no college can still walk into a factory tomorrow and pull down middle-class wages. In fact, a large majority of child support debt is owed by men who make less than $10,000 a year.

“We’re asking that [women and children] become dependent on men who are just as poor as they are,” says Jacquelyn Boggess of the Center for Family Policy and Practice.

When parents face incarceration for nonpayment, it can burden entire families. Boggess has seen men’s mothers, even their ex-girlfriends or wives, step in to pay to keep a father out of jail. And child support debt never goes away, even if you declare bankruptcy or when the children grow up.

“We found that there are 20- and 30-year-old children who are paying their father’s child support debt, so their father can keep whatever small income they may have,” she says.

child-support-poverty-burden

Balancing Responsibility And Reality

Among the Obama administration’s proposed changes to child support rules is a provision barring states from letting child support pile up in prison. There is wide support for that, even among conservatives.

“Everyone agrees, yes, we should be tough,” says Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. “But if a father goes to jail for five years, should he owe $15,000 in child support when he comes out? You know that guy’s never going to have $15,000 in his whole life.”

More controversially, the administration wants to make sure child support orders are based on a parent’s actual income.

“We can’t be naive when we’re dealing with parents who have walked away from providing for their children,” says Robert Doar, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Doar, who used to head child support enforcement in New York state, says there will always be some parents who go to great lengths to hide income. He does support suspending debt during incarceration and more job training programs — but he worries that the proposed changes would make it too easy to dismiss cases as “uncollectible.”

“We’re talking about poor, single parents, often moms,” he says. “And the child support collections that they get, when they get it, represents 45 percent of their income.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill have filed bills to block the proposed regulations. They worry they’ll undermine the principle of personal responsibility, a hallmark of child support enforcement measures in the 1990s. They also say any regulatory changes should be made through Congress, not the administration.

Child Support Laws Crippling Poor Fathers

by Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D

The more one learns about our system of criminal justice, the more one must wonder about some of its senseless policies.  That the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world is pretty much common knowledge to most.  But in case you have been asleep at the wheel, here are some mind-numbing numbers. With about five percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.  About 2.2 million people are locked behind bars on a given day.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1,561,500 inmates in state and federal prisons at year-end 2014 (serving terms of one year or more) and another 744,660 in local jails at midyear 2014.  About 6.9 million Americans (one in 35 adults) were under some form of correctional supervision (incarcerated, on parole or probation) at yearend 2013.  The number of adult Americans with felony convictions is estimated to be about 24 million (8.6%).  About 25 percent of black American adults have a felony conviction.

That’s the big picture.  However, throughout our criminal justice system there are laws, regulations, and issues that are antithetical to the notion of a free and democratic society.  The coercive and often deadly policing of neighborhoods of color, discriminatory “stop and frisk” laws, criminalization of the mentally ill, bail policies that unfairly impact poor suspects, and what many consider to be the inhumane over dependence on and arbitrary use of solitary confinement.  Family members and friends are often forced to travel inordinate distances to visit children, friends, and other people they care for.  They are charged exorbitant fees to speak with them by telephone and are treated without dignity during visitation.  Much of this has occurred because various elected officials compete to see who can be toughest on people who defy the law.  Many books and hundreds of journal articles have been written about our unjust system of crime control.  My dissertation focused on the impact of incarceration on the earnings and employment of indigent fathers.

InmateThe Washington Post ran an article on one particularly perplexing policy impacting poor inmates which disproportionately affects black and Latino fathers.  Child support obligations continue during periods of incarceration which often amass significant amounts of debt while these fathers are behind bars.  Once released, indebted fathers are under pressure to pay down their arrears.  Failure to do so results in more late fees and penalties and could ultimately put them back in prison.  In many jurisdictions this occurs because incarceration is considered “voluntary impoverishment”.  The term generally refers to those who quit their jobs or otherwise forfeit income in order to avoid paying an ex-spouse alimony or child support.  A classic example might be Marvin Gaye’s 1978 release of “Here My Dear,” thought to be a lackluster recording whose proceeds were going to his ex-wife, Anna Gordy Gaye.

The idea that poor fathers would deliberately get themselves locked up to avoid paying child support is ludicrous on its face and a ridiculous justification for current policy.  Columbia University social work professor Ronald B. Mincy and Urban Institute scholar Elaine Sorensen first wrote about child support policies that were burying poor incarcerated fathers back in 1998 differentiating “deadbeat” dads from “turnips”.  Deadbeat dads were those who could afford to pay but did not.  Turnips were fathers who were unable to pay—the thinking being the old adage that you can’t get blood from a turnip.  Although there is a judge in Alabama who thinks giving blood is a reasonable substitute.

The Obama Administration believes current child support policy that piles debts on poor incarcerated fathers is helping no one.  It does nothing for the mother or her child’s circumstance.  Housing the father as an inmate is significantly more costly than what the state could recoup from fathers for welfare payments to their children.  Fathers are often removed permanently from the lives of their children which one could argue might be good or bad.  The Office of Child Support Enforcement has drafted new rules that will go into effect in 2017 that changes the definition of incarceration to “involuntary” impoverishment and would allow indigent incarcerated fathers to push the pause button or negotiate a payment reduction while incarcerated.

Not surprising Republican lawmakers oppose what appears to be a commonsense rule change.   Utah Senator Orin Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have introduced legislation to block the new rules.  There are many things wrong with our current system of criminal justice and reform is moving at a glacial pace.  In the meantime, much too much human capital is being obliterated by the many indelible scars being inflicted on far too many people—particularly African American males.

Child Support Laws Crippling Poor Fathers was originally published @ Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy » Charles Lewis.

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