Past-due child support is a growing problem, but not for the reasons you might think.
In an op-ed published in June, LA Times columnist Lynne Haney unearthed some startling facts. He wrote:
- “Since 1986, this [past-due child support] debt has increased by 1,000%, reaching $114.6 billion last year.”
- “Of child support debtors, 52% do not owe money to a custodial parent. Rather, they owe the state as payback for public assistance, foster care or Medicaid.”
- “70% of child support debt is owed by fathers who make less than $10,000 a year.”
Most of these fathers hover near or below poverty level. If the parents and children lived together in one home, they would qualify for government services. So why are these men forced to repay the assistance? State agencies blame men who don’t participate in the process, but there’s little guidance on how to take part.
In addition, Haney shined a light on the contribution incarceration has made on the growing totals. Not only does going to jail make it harder for men to keep their jobs, but it often costs more than the debts they owe. He wrote:
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- “Some 15% of all African American fathers have done jail time for nonpayment.”
- “In some states, child support debtors make up 20% of the jail population.”
- “A 90-day child support sentence in California costs the state $18,000, which is more than many fathers’ debt.”
The problem is further complicated by the ways communities attempt to collect on the amounts owed. In cities across the U.S., men are rounded up in midnight raids or in sting operations held on holidays, like Father’s Day, when men who owe sizeable debts are more likely to surface.
The arrests cost men the jobs they’re using to pay support, their housing and most importantly, they disrupt parenting time. Sometimes, the arrests happen in front of their children.
While criminalization has helped a small number of parents collect child support, it more commonly punishes dads who are struggling to manage unreasonable orders. It also turns out it’s less effective than simply treating non-custodial parents like human beings.
Pro-Father Focus Contributes to Higher Child Support Enforcement Rates
A test program in Georgia is using behavioral research to solve these problems. It aims to change the attitude toward dads (and the 7 percent of support-paying moms), and treat them like contributors versus second-rate parents. So far, efforts have been a big success.
Simply changing the wording at various stages of the child support process demonstrated a 54 percent improvement in effectiveness. When dads are invited, encouraged and appreciated it is more beneficial to families, to children and to state budgets than the current trend toward criminalization.
Trials for the Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services Project operating in Ohio, California, Vermont, Colorado, Texas, Washington, and Washington, D.C. will release their own reports over the next year. Their work could revolutionize the way child support enforcement is handled across the U.S.