Child support is considered an antipoverty program because it forces noncustodial parents to contribute financially to their children’s care.
But it also operates as a government cost-recovery strategy by reimbursing states and the federal government for benefits paid to mothers on behalf of children. As such, families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families only receive about a quarter of the child support collected on their behalf. The majority of states keep all child support collected on behalf of these families, and fewer than half allow even a small pass-through of the child support they collect — typically $50 — to go to the child.
Child support orders are also proportionately very high given many men’s low incomes — 70 percent of the national uncollected child support debt is owed by noncustodial parents who have no quarterly earnings or who have annual earnings of less than $10,000.
Some fathers pay up to 65 percent of their wages in child support and arrearages to the state. Such a high level of garnishment would severely strain almost any person’s budget, and drives many low-income men into severe poverty or the underground economy.
We now know that many low-income fathers want to contribute financially, but face barriers, including a lack of education and training, lack of employment and employment opportunities, race and class discrimination, criminal records and lack of credentials like a driver’s license, permanent address and previous work history.
Child support will never reach its full potential for providing income for our most vulnerable families without fundamental changes.
Child support payments should be passed through to the custodial parent in their entirety instead of being used to recoup government spending on children.
Payments should be set reasonably, with greater flexibility to adjust to the noncustodial parent’s income. Fathers can now request a review, but only if they know their rights and can navigate the judicial process, which the majority do not.
Fathers need to be armed with the training and skills to compete in this global economy so they can support themselves and pay child support. Training and employment supports can be either mandatory or voluntary, but they should be available.
Punitive methods to coerce a “deadbeat” dad into paying, like incarceration, should only be used in cases where fathers demonstrate that they have the means to pay, but are unwilling to fulfill their obligations, not when they are unable to. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement itself has said that “the average incarcerated parent with a child support case has $10,000 in arrears when entering state prison, and leaves with $20,000 in arrears. Not only is this debt unlikely to ever be collected, but it adds to the barriers formerly incarcerated parents face in reentering their communities.”
Kenneth Braswell is the executive director of Fathers Incorporated, a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible fatherhood and mentoring.