Making deadbeat dads and students pay up in Massachusetts

MASSACHUSETTS is a big state but not big enough for deadbeats who walk away from their responsibilities, leaving taxpayers or others holding the bag. Many of these shirkers may finally have fallen on hard times thanks to a new law that allows the commonwealth to pursue more aggressively child-support payments ordered by the courts. Liable for seizure are thousands of dollars of both federal and Massachusetts income tax refunds due nearly 55,000 fathers who have ignored or are substantially behind in child-care payments.

Many dads who have gone into hiding, often in another state, to escape child-support bills, seem sure to be caught in the coming months. If nothing else, the new tax-refund-intercept program, spearheaded by the State Department of Revenue, could appreciably lighten welfare costs, since the children of at least 50,216 nonsupport fathers are on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). In many cases public assistance would no longer be needed.

Also bound to benefit from tax-refund seizures are the youngsters of another 4,163 nonsupport dads whose neglected families are not on public relief, often at great hardship to the mother involved.

While in some instances the court-mandated support burden might be greater than a divorced father thinks he should bear, that is hardly an excuse for him to abandon his obligation. The fairness or unfairness of a support decree can always be appealed.

For too long, too many Bay Staters have been getting away with nonpayment because of lax or virtually nonexistent child-support enforcement procedures. Thus they have in effect been dumping their financial responsibilities onto fellow taxpayers.

As effective as the tax-refund-intercept program may prove to be in curbing the number of fathers who refuse to pay what they should to feed, clothe, and house their dependent children, it may be only a small step in the right direction.

But it should be a lot easier for the state through the Internal Revenue Service to track down not only delinquent fathers but also others who have walked away from outstanding debts.

In the past the commonwealth had to depend on a support-delinquent parent to come forward voluntarily or rely on tips as to the parent's whereabouts. Such a tip led to the recent arrest in Texas of a former North Andover man who 11 years ago walked away from his son. He now owes in excess of $45,000 in support payments and if convicted could be forced to somehow come up with that amount, or perhaps face imprisonment.

Regardless of how he makes out, there is no doubt that Bay State runaway fathers will be looking over their shoulders and giving more thought to facing up to their support-neglected children.

With the commonwealth on the road to collecting at least some of what absentee parents owe their families, it may be time to go after others who have failed to pay up.

The next logical step might be for state lawmakers to crack down on borrowers who received student loans and have not repaid them. These delinquents, including doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, are costing taxpayers money through defaulted government-guaranteed loans.

Legislation to require students to pay back what they owe, or at least make a continuing good-faith effort toward that goal, has spurred little lawmaker enthusiasm. Could it be some senators or representatives or members of their families might be affected?

Requiring anyone who has an unpaid student loan to square his or her account before holding a public office is worth considering. So, too, are restrictions on the relicensing of professionals such as physicians, dentists, and the like who are in student-loan default.

A lawyer after passing the bar could be compelled to settle all such outstanding accounts with the state or a bank within a certain number of years. Those who turn their backs on what they owe would seem to be unfit to practice law. Why shouldn't they face disbarment or at least suspension of the right to practice in Massachusetts?

There is nothing unfair about expecting those who have an obligation, especially a financial one, to meet it if able to do so, as hard as that might be. Only in instances of severe hardship should anyone be allowed to walk away from a student-loan or child-support debt.

Paying back what is owed should not be a matter of convenience to the debtor. Those who would suggest otherwise may be doing little more than trying to justify what amounts to picking the pockets of taxpayers who often must then come up with the money owed.

The newly launched tax-refund-intercept campaign makes a lot of sense, no matter how few dollars it nets the federal and state governments, or abandoned families.

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