The irony of reform: Child support laws may not support families

Over the past couple of decades, family advocates have had their ups and downs. The good news is that, for the most part, the myth of the Welfare Mom has passed into history. Even the most heated presidential debates no longer rail at these single mothers who are addicted to public benefits, who would rather have more children to collect more welfare checks than have a steady job with a decent wage and a modest benefit package.

As that image faded, though, another took its place: the Deadbeat Dad. Deadbeat Dads are the reasons single mothers have to go on welfare. These men have broken promises, violated child support agreements and ignored court orders, foisting the responsibility they took on when they became fathers onto the rest of society. Jail time was almost too good for them.

For the past 20 years, government agencies and the courts have come down hard on fathers who are behind on child support payments. Officials say that we have arrived at a turning point, though. Yes, fewer fathers with means are falling behind or refusing to pay; the 1996 welfare law changes have succeeded in that regard. The laws have failed, however, to help the low income dads who want to pay but cannot.

It is hard to look at the current situation and not see parallels to the debate over mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The 1996 laws allowed the government to garnish as much as 65 percent of a father’s or mother’s pretax income to pay for child support. While that may be manageable for a middle- to high-income parent, the formula backfires for lower income parents. A 2007 study found that parents earning $10,000 a year or less could see 83 percent or more of their income.

According to the Office of Child Support Enforcement (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), the laws are in serious need of revision. Where lawmakers thought a court order would motivate a parent to work harder, to clear that debt as quickly as possible, the OCSE commissioner says the truth is that the court order and the ever-increasing debt load discourage parents from even trying to pay.

The garnishment formula is not the only problem, either. We’ll explain more in our next post.

Source: Peoria Public Radio, “ Dead Broke: The ‘Why’ Behind Unpaid Child Support,” Jennifer Ludden, Nov. 19, 2015

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