Child support enforcement
By Stuart A. Miller
Is child support enforcement the answer to welfare?
Special from the American Coalition of Fathers and Children
1995 Maryland - Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, recently testified before the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and stated that if we collect all of the child support owed, we would reduce the $200 billion welfare cost by 25%! You do not need to be a member of the world champion U.S. Math Olympiad team (we placed first and won 6 gold medals in July) to see that there is something wrong with Ms. Shalala's testimony.
The 17th Annual Child Support Report to Congress states that there was about $10.9 billion in court-ordered child support owed and of that, a little more than $6 billion was paid in 1992. This leaves $4.9 billion in unpaid child support in 1992. That amount is uncannily similar to the $4 billion annual operating budget for the Office of Child Support Enforcement.
What was Congress' response to Ms. Shalala's incredible testimony? Representative E. Clay Shaw, Jr., (R-FL) Chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Resources for the Committee on Ways and Means, announced that a child support enforcement amendment would be introduced (to the Contract With America).
Other than being incredibly inept at math, Congress is apparently oblivious to the utter failure of such previously attempted efforts. We have a 10 year history of enacting increasingly punitive child support enforcement measures, yet none have increased the percentage of AFDC collections by more than 1%! Why is this?
Feminist policy failures
First, we have to realize that according to the 17th Annual Child Support Report to Congress, over 70% of current child support is paid. Of the remaining 30%, we have to ask how many obligors are incarcerated? Incarceration is not considered a valid excuse for non-payment of child support. Therefore, obligors become non-
paying statistics while in prison. This includes those who are jailed for falling behind in their payments. A high percentage of prisoners have child support obligations and as many as one third of the inmates in many county jails are there in the first place because of child support non-compliance.
Secondly, how many obligors are drug addicts, alcoholics, disabled, mentally incapacitated, homeless, unemployed, or otherwise unable to pay child support amounts that are set beyond their means? These categories cover an extremely large percentage of delinquent obligors. The government offers thousands of programs for women, especially those with children, who are faced with any of the disabilities mentioned above. What do they offer fathers in similar circumstances? Incarceration. What does Congress propose? More severe penalties. However, even these unfortunates do not make up the largest percentage of obligors. The largest percentage simply doesn't exist!
We need to look at how the government reports its statistics. Recently, the Florida Department of Revenue, the agency responsible for child support enforcement in that State, sent out 700,000 notices to allegedly delinquent child support obligors. The summons/notices demanded immediate payment or the recipient would be incarcerated. Subsequently, officials acknowledged that probably 500,000 of those notices were sent to individuals where no child support may be owed. One of those recipients, Daniel Wells, died eight years ago in a traffic accident, but the State of Florida still wants him to cough up $160,000 in past due child support! (About the same amount of money the State wasted on postage).
The General Accounting Office in 1992, in a report entitled: Mothers Report Receiving Less Support From Out-of-State Fathers [GAO/HRD-92-39FS], found that as many as 14% of fathers who owe child support are deceased! The report further states that 66% of fathers who owe support "cannot afford to pay the amount ordered."
It would seem that the greatest percentage increase in child support collections would be from the government cleaning up its act and accurately reporting the amount owed. Further, it needs to report what percentage of unpaid child support is from individuals who are incapable of paying the amount ordered and breakdown those reasons into categories so that we can address the causes, not the symptom. Until the government is required to do so, inappropriate and ineffective remedies will continue to issue forth from a misled Congress.
Many Fathers Pay
The high percentage of child support actually collected is incredible, given the essence of the requirement. It goes contrary to the very nature of people to take something away from them and then make them pay for it. This is especially true of parents association with their children. There is very little that is more fundamentally a part of who we are than our children and our relationship with them.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, [Child Support & Alimony: 1989 Series P-60, No. 173, Pages 6 & 7 of the 1989 Census -Current Population Report, issued September 1991], about half of fathers receive no court ordered visitation at all. When fathers do receive visitation, almost 80% pay all their child support on time and in full. When fathers receive joint custody, the financial child support compliance rate jumps to over 90%.
Joint-physical-custody is the cure to the child support problem and is the closest thing to a two-parent family that we can give a child. Unfortunately, over 90% of litigated decisions result in an award of sole-custody to the mother. This is when the child's problems really begin to escalate.
Even when fathers do receive court-ordered access to their children, their visitation attempts are often met with interference by the mothers. Joan Berlin Kelley and Judith Wallerstein in their book "Surviving the Break-up" found that almost half of all mothers see no value in the father's continued contact with his children following separation or divorce. Dr. Sanford Braver at the University of Arizona, Psychology Department, confirmed these figures and found that up to 40% of mothers interfere with the father's relationship with his children.
Rewarding Compliance With Punishment
With the documented connection between the father's access to his children and voluntary financial child support compliance, why is it that the only response is to punish the father, when it is often the mother who is creating an environment that encourages non-compliance? Many women do not care about the money, but merely want the father punished. Congress is playing right into their vindictive hands. This is because child support is primarily a male-burden. This is not only evidenced by the denigration that fathers are subjected to by politicians who label them as dead-beats, but supported by research as well.
The Office of Income Security Policy [Technical Analysis Paper No. 42, Oct. 1991], stated that less than 30% of custodial fathers receive a child support award, whereas almost 80% of custodial mothers do. Further, about 47% of those mothers who are ordered to pay support, totally default on their obligation. There are no mechanisms in place to ensure that when fathers pay child support, mothers also contribute their fair share to the cost of raising the child. There are no mechanisms in place to see that the father's child support payments are even spent on the child. Even more curious is the fact that only fathers are required to repay the government, in the form of child-support, for welfare benefits that mothers receive.
Support Enforcement Not The Answer
Back to Donna Shalala. Even if 100% of all child support owed was collected, it would not even get 10% of mothers off of the welfare roles. Since 1984, child support has been touted as a cure for welfare dependency. But it has not cured welfare. Not only is welfare dependency increasing, out-of-wedlock births have increased, more marriages are ending in divorce and children's well-being and hope for the future is more questionable.
The data are in, children's needs are known, and so is the solution. We need to re-
engage fathers in their children's lives, as well as encourage and enforce their involvement. Joint-physical-custody and the two-parent family are the solutions. More of the same draconian transferal of wealth schemes will continue to be as ineffective as they have proven to be in the past, no matter how aggressively they are enforced. The federal government's "no-father permitted" policy that was enacted as part of the 1988 Family Support Act, must be repealed.
The government cannot continue to act upon individuals whom they have already acted upon to exclude. If the government cleans up its statistics and begins addressing the reasons that individuals cannot or will not pay financial support, there will suddenly cease to be a child support enforcement problem. The problem is primarily with the government, not with the fathers. This is where true reform is needed.