Getting the Poor to Pay

A father is at the courthouse, nervous and agitated. He has to come up with some money — quick. He starts making one call after the next. And then he remembers his aunt recently received her Social Security check. She agrees to help. Had this father failed in his mission, he would have likely gone to jail. This is just one of the stories that the Center for Family Policy & Practice collected from fathers involved in the nation’s child support system. Part of its work is to collect money from America’s poor.

The current child support system was born out of 1990’s welfare reform. But the notion of getting the poor to pay is a component of current conservative policy efforts such as healthcare. They want participants to pay for Medicaid. The common threads running through such policies are negative stereotypesrooted in class and race. Poor people are assumed to be black or brown. And, by extension, they are thought to be lazy and irresponsible. This leads to a perceived need to get tough on them.

Toughness Producing Tough Results

Lesson learned from child support policies can inform contemporary proposals. But they also point a severe need to look back and fix what once went wrong. An overhaul of the child support system is long overdue.

Child support efforts over the last couple decades reveal a simple truth: Poor people don’t have any money. Perhaps Congress should have consulted a dictionary while crafting this legislation? At any rate, it’s hard to imagine a more determined effort to get poor people to pay. Non-payers can be jailed, lose driver’s or professional licenses, earn negative marks on their credit reports, and/or experience other punishments.

None of this seems to be working. Child Support Enforcement regularly reports a high amount of arrearages (or unpaid support). Non-custodial parents currently owe $115.5 billion, a figure that has largely been on the rise since 1990’s welfare reform. The government fails to regularly collect information about debtors. However, a 2009 Urban Institute study found that nearly 75 percent of high debtors had annual incomes of $10,000 or less.

Child Support simply isn’t working for the lowest income parents.

What Could Possibly Be the Problem?

Fathers with limited incomes aren’t paying despite the severe consequences. It time for policymakers to face the possibility that many truly don’t have access to money or stable employment.

Policymakers’ focus on laziness and irresponsibility masks certain labor market realities. One of them is the disappearance of manufacturing and other good jobs for workers with limited education. Another is increases in mass incarceration and the unwillingness of employers to hire workers with felony convictions. Black men are disproportionately affected by both of these trends.

Many men also face personal challenges. A recent study examined fatherhood program participants with limited education and wages — 1 in 3 reported emotional and mental health issues. Few had been formally diagnosed, suggesting failures to receive treatment. Mental health challenges often overlapped with substance abuse problems.

Fixing What’s Broke

What’s needed is actual efforts to solve these problems — not punishments for being poor and/or having untreated medical conditions. So what should policymakers do?

In a recent paper, CFFPP suggested that some non-custodial parents should be able to stop out of the child support system. During these breaks, fathers could participate in high quality employment programs and helpful social services. Once able to obtain and maintain jobs, they could once again be expected to pay child support.

But what about the mothers who need the child support money?

Too often the interests of women and men are pitted against each other. Helping one doesn’t have to come at the expense of the other. Good jobs and social services for fathers can be paired with equally good reforms of services reaching mothers. And the government should guarantee child support payments to mothers and children while fathers are stopped out of the program. Versions of guaranteed child support have been circulating in policy circles for decades.

No doubt, such suggestions represent a significant departure from existing policies. But that’s a good and necessary thing. Too often progressives simply tinker within the boxes created by conservatives — even when those boxes are composed of harmful stereotypes and the false idea that America lacks resources to invest in its people.

Boldness is required to scrap all of that. It’s time to do what’s best for Americans living in poverty.

(Originally Posted on on May 18, 2017)

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