To overcome the destructiveness of the child support system, we must take stock of the system itself.
The system is a standardized, computerized procedure to collect and disburse money. It’s not a social welfare agency that matches service to needs. Federal and state law requires it to facilitate wage withholding for on-time payment, and seizure of bank accounts, suspension of licenses and levies of property when child support payment is in arrears.
This is because federal law requires states to retain money collected on behalf of the poorest families — current and former welfare recipients — as reimbursement for welfare cash benefits.
The system is structurally unable to account for chronic unemployment or dire poverty of noncustodial parents. The agency assesses debt in full knowledge that some parents have no assets, no income, no job and no prospects. About 25 percent of noncustodial parents in the system are poor and unemployed or underemployed. Most of them protect and support their children whenever and however they can. Still, regardless of the threat of incarceration or other enforcement tactics, they simply don’t have the ability to pay.
The poorest, most marginalized, parents are dealing with (or running from) the continuous toll of debt and the threat of incarceration. In fact, examination of agency practice will likely reveal the racial inequity, disparity and discrimination evident in the rest of society. Regardless of race, income level, marital status or gender, most parents want to support and inspire their children, and the current system cannot help the poorest, most disadvantaged families reach those goals.
We must end the destructive policy of incarcerating parents who can’t pay support, and stop uselessly adding to the child support debt toll. More important we must create policies and services that help families get ahead. A new, better family policy agenda would recognize that some parents will need services outside and instead of the child support system.
The system should include focused services to help mothers and fathers, custodial and noncustodial parents, gain economic stability. In addition to a better Earned-Income Tax Credit policy that recognizes that both parents support children, parents will need connections to job training and employment services, and earning and income supplements while they train. In fact all of the social support services that we tried to, or meant to provide for single parents should be improved for custodial parents and extended to noncustodial parents. Both parents need health care, legal services and housing assistance and earning supplements.
Like every other family struggling with separation, poor parents need living wage jobs, safe communities, opportunities and encouragement.
Jacquelyn Boggess is the co-director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice.