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.
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.