The Continuing Crisis in Child Support

Despite government efforts to collect from absent parents, children, families, and taxpayers still lose millions

WE enter 1994 with two new federal initiatives aimed at tougher child- support enforcement. Universal wage withholding of child-support payments began Jan. 1. And last October the willful failure to pay past-due child support for a child living in another state became a federal crime. These measures are part of the federal government's efforts to attack the crisis in child support.

Despite federal and state efforts, many children continue to suffer economic deprivation, single-parent families fall below the poverty line, and taxpayers are burdened with increasing welfare costs. Why? Because millions of parents won't support their children. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement reports that in an average annual child-support caseload of more than 15 million cases, only 3 million cases receive payments from the obligated parent.

The costs to both children and taxpayers are immense. In 1991, some 8.5 million children received Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) grants. A large number of these children would be removed from AFDC rolls if child support were being paid by the parent under court order to pay.

The failure to support also often involves failure to enroll children in a health-insurance plan or to assist in medical costs if no health plan is available through employment. Neglect of health care by financially strapped parents leads to increased costs when a child is hospitalized for preventable illness.

The positive results of increased child-support enforcement at the federal and state level deserve notice. Child-support collections monitored by the federal government showed an increase from $500 million collected in 1976 to $6 billion in 1991. In addition, about 11 percent of AFDC payouts were recovered through child-support collections. Twenty-two states reported an increase of more than 20 percent in collections distributed to families in 1992.

The paternity of over 500,000 children was also established, granting them access to social entitlements, insurance, and veteran's benefits available through their fathers. The new federal laws focus on the enormous problem that remains and make it clear that the federal government considers child support a priority.

Universal wage withholding of child-support payments began on Jan. 1. The Family Support Act of 1988 required all states to enact legislation mandating automatic wage withholding as part of every court order requiring payment of child support.

The wage attachment from the obligated parent's paycheck will begin immediately, whether or not the individual has ever failed to pay. Previously, an arrearage in support payments was required to initiate a wage attachment in most states. The new law should prevent arrears from occurring in many cases. It simplifies accounting for both parents. It also streamlines paperwork, holding down administrative costs.

The Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 gives the Federal Bureau of Investigation responsibility for investigating and prosecuting deadbeat parents. The federal crime of failing to pay past-due support for a child living in another state will carry a six-month prison term, a $5,000 fine, or both for a first offense. A second offense carries a two-year sentence, a $250,000 fine, or both.

These measures beg the question, What is it in our society that makes it possible for so many to avoid the obligation to support their children? In their daily work, child-support enforcement workers - human services personnel, attorneys, investigators - encounter parents who do not believe they have a responsibility to support their children. These people view child support as an unfair burden placed upon them by their ex-spouse, the courts, or the government. Rational argument does not convince them that the duty to support their children does not end with their own exit from the household.

Our society has not reached a zero-tolerance consensus against nonpaying parents, a consensus we have reached on the issue of drunk driving. The attitudes cited do not meet with universal condemnation. Until they do, ``working under the table'' will remain possible for parents who choose to avoid wage withholding. The employer who cooperates with the irresponsible parent is difficult to track down and punish.

Many judges remain reluctant to use the tough remedies available to coerce those in contempt of court for failure to pay child support. Judges will cite law, humanity, or fairness as the reason for their reluctance, despite widespread evidence that a few days or even a few hours in jail has a wonderful effect in producing cash from recalcitrant parents.

The child-support crisis will continue despite legislation. Laws can improve the situation, but they alone cannot change attitudes. A sense of responsibility to our children and to ourselves requires a fundamental commitment to make nonpaying parents the same type of outcast that the repeat drunk driver has become.

Parents who require the taxpayer to support their children because they do not deserve no tolerance. Those who feel no obligation to keep their children out of poverty should create only a sense of righteous outrage among those of us who care about our children and the children of our nation. It should become very uncomfortable to be a parent who is not paying child support. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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