Federal Child Support Enforcement Cuts Will Hurt Bureaucrats, Not Children

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Democrats,
women's advocates, the National Governors Association, and child
support enforcement officials are sounding the alarm over proposed
cuts in the federal funds that subsidize states' child support enforcement
efforts. The cuts, which recently passed the House, will
reduce federal reimbursement from 66% of the states' costs
to 50% over five years.

According to
the Congressional Budget Office, this will lead to $24 billion
in child support going uncollected over the next 10 years.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Los Angeles County Child
Support Services Department Director Philip Browning are warning
that the cuts will mean a drastic reduction in the amount of child
support collected. A bipartisan group of senators has penned
a letter opposing the cuts, explaining that “in 2004, more than
$4 was collected in support for every dollar invested in the program.”
All of these claims, however, are based on false assumptions and
misleading data.

It is true
that federal figures show that over $20 billion in child support
is collected nationwide yearly, and that only $5 billion is spent
on enforcement. However, the vast majority of the funds collected
are not done through enforcement tactics – they're simply
the payments already being made by law-abiding noncustodial parents.
These payments will continue to be made regardless of the cuts.
The myth that child support enforcement is a bargain was created
by incorrectly counterposing total collections with expenditures
on enforcement.

In reality, much
if not most child support enforcement funds are frittered
away in misguided attempts to collect artificially inflated
paper arrearages from low-income men who couldn't possibly pay them.
Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds
of those behind on child support nationwide earned less than $10,000
in the previous year; less than four percent of the overall
national child support debt is owed by those earning $40,000
or more a year. According to the largest federally-funded study
of divorced dads ever conducted, unemployment, not willful neglect,
is the largest cause of failure to pay child support. 

The inflated
arrearages are created in large part because the child support system
is mulishly impervious to the economic realities working-class people
face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, unemployment, and work-related
injuries. According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20
non-custodial parents who suffers a substantial drop in income is
able to get courts to reduce his or her child support payments.
In such cases, the amounts owed mount quickly, as do interest and
penalties.

For example,
a recent Urban Institute study found that only 25% of California’s
$14.4 billion child support arrearage will be collected over the
next decade because the support amounts demanded of noncustodial
parents are not realistic. The average arrears owed per debtor is
$3,000 higher than the median annual earnings of employed child
support debtors. Those in the poorest category have a child support
debt amounting to their full net income for seven and a half years. 

The "Most
Wanted Deadbeat Parents" lists put out by most states demonstrate
this problem.  In the past few months, "deadbeat
parents" have been the targets of highly-publicized law enforcement
actions in Virginia, Texas, Kentucky, and Arizona. Yet Virginia's
"Most Wanted" list is topped by a laborer, a carnival
hired hand, and a construction worker, who collectively somehow
owe over a quarter million dollars in child support. Of all
the parents on Texas’ and Kentucky's lists, only one appears to
have an education, and the most common designation for occupation
is “laborer.” Near the top of Arizona's list is a maintenance
man who owes $90,223, an unemployed man of no known occupation who
owes $54,298, and, best of all, a roofer who owes $240,581.

This week Abbott boasted
that he had arrested one of the “deadbeats” on his “Most
Wanted” list – Charles Silva, who owes almost $40,000 in child
support. Yet it’s doubtful that Silva will be writing a five-figure
check any time soon – Silva’s occupation is “general laborer.”  Far
from being lists of well-heeled businessmen, lawyers, and accountants,
the vast majority of the men on these lists do low wage and often
seasonal work, and owe large sums of money which they could never
hope to pay off.  

Child support
enforcement agencies are notorious for their abusive tactics towards
such men, as well as their mind-numbing incompetence, waste,
and the incessant computer errors which lead to the persecution
of innocent citizens.

It is true,
as critics of the cuts say, that the amount of child support collected
by child support enforcement programs has increased from $2.4 billion
in 1977 (2004 dollars) to nearly $22 billion in 2004. However, most
of this increase has nothing to do with enforcement. For one, there
are far more children receiving child support now than there were
in 1977, in part because of welfare reform, which has obligated
the fathers of children on welfare to pay child support to the states.
Also, the amount of child support demanded from noncustodial parents
rose sharply during the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, whereas most
child support used to be paid directly from the noncustodial parent
to the custodial parent, today most child support goes through the
state systems, creating the illusion of increased collections.  

For too long
child support policies have been determined by politics instead
of common sense; the mantra of "help women and children"
has allowed large-scale abuses and waste to go unchallenged. The
proposed cuts won’t interfere with efforts to collect
legitimate child support, but they will save taxpayers $15.8
billion over the next decade. They will also force some discipline
and restraint onto an area of government which sorely needs it.

This is
a slightly expanded version of a column which was originally published
in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (12/17/05) and the Riverside
Press-Enterprise (12/16/05).

December
21, 2005

Glenn
Sacks [send him mail]
serves on the advisory board of Stop Abuse for Everyone, an international
domestic violence organization. Glenn Sacks is a men’s and fathers’
issues columnist and a nationally-syndicated
radio talk show host
. His columns have appeared in dozens
of America’s largest newspapers. Visit his
website. Jeffery
M. Leving is one of America’s most prominent family law attorneys.
He is the author of the book Fathers’
Rights: Hard-hitting and Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in
a Custody Dispute
. Visit his
website
.

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