A fugitive people within a nation is tyranny.

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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.

The Child Support System Should Support Families, Not Government Coffers

Child support is considered an antipoverty program because it forces noncustodial parents to contribute financially to their children’s care.

dollar bondageBut 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.

disabled dadSome 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.

consentPayments 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.

slavery to childrenPunitive 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.

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