BOZEMAN, MONT. — The autumn hunt. It reigns as an inviolable ritual for millions of sportsmen from the fir-cloaked Rockies to the marshes of Delaware.
But under the new federal welfare code that goes into effect tomorrow, parents who refuse to honor another societal tradition - making child support payments - could find themselves denied the hallowed privilege to hunt and fish.
While this provision represents a tiny, obscure component of the sweeping welfare reform package passed by the Republican-controlled Congress this summer and signed into law by a Democratic president, it signals a rare political agreement on matters of domestic social policy.
In the 1990s, getting tough on scofflaw parents has become a patriotic, bipartisan strategy to help reduce the number of children on public assistance and repair the tattered financial condition of the single-parent households, which make up a growing portion of American families.
"I think the child support provisions are a very positive step in a bill that otherwise is a stampede to hurt children," claims Nancy Ebb, a staff attorney with the Children's Defense Fund in Washington. "Where such regulations have already been implemented the threat of revoking licenses has worked with extraordinary effectiveness."
How governments comply with the mandates is a question that most legislatures will take up when they convene early in 1997.
Nowhere will the tone of discussions be more spirited than in the rural West and Midwest, two regions that hold up hunting and fishing as sacred birthrights.
"It's going to be a hot-button issue," predicts state Sen. Charles Scott, a high plains rancher who serves as chairman of the Wyoming Senate Committee on Labor, Health, and Social Services.
According to the CDF and the US Department of Health and Human Services, more than 18.3 million child support case files were handled by states in 1994 (representing tens of millions of children), yet only one-fourth of the clients received full support.
From 1990 to 1994, the amount of child support collected nationwide rose from $6 billion to $10 billion - a full two-thirds increase based largely upon progressive action taken by a handful of states.
Still, the jump is considered modest. Half of all parents owing child support in the US fail to meet their obligation or pay nothing, creating not only a hardship for dependent kids but a multibillion-dollar drain on tax dollars.
"The problem of nonpayment of child support exists in every neighborhood's backyard," notes Ms. Ebb. "It cuts across class, race, and income, and it's devastating for children.
Many states already have resorted to garnishing wages, suspending driver's licenses, and withholding business licenses as ways of pressuring child support scofflaws into paying up.
Revoking recreational licenses is seen as an aggressive next step because it strikes where offenders are likely to feel the pressure: in their cherished leisure activities.
"How will it be implemented? We don't know the answer to that yet," says Laura Kadwell, director of the child enforcement division in the Minnesota Department of Human Services. "The object is not to make the administration of this so complex as to destroy the essence."
Minnesota, long viewed as a leader in social welfare policies, also is the "land of 10,000 lakes" and holds the highest per capita concentration of hunters and anglers in the nation. Even here, state attempts to revoke recreational licenses were dropped from a recent reform package after they were deemed too controversial and burdensome to small store owners where licenses are sold.
Onus put on states
But the new federal regulations clearly direct states to target a variety of publicly issued licenses, including the sporting variety.
Last week, Ramsay County, which encompasses the city of St. Paul, dispatched its first five letters notifying delinquent parents that their driver's licenses were being cancelled, and in the coming weeks another 100 will be sent out.
"The backlog of child support payments is a cultural problem as much as it is an economic one," Kadwell says. "What I mean by that is it's something that people have been allowed to get away with for years. Congress, the president, governors, and state legislators have given us authority to change the cultural mentality."
Sharing company with Minnesota at the top of the child support collection list are Wisconsin, Washington State, New Hampshire, and Maine.
The five states with the lowest rates of collection are Rhode Island, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, and Arizona.
"The welfare reform act was designed to improve our effectiveness, and I believe the message being sent to hunters and anglers in outdoor-oriented states like Arizona will make a difference," says Kevin Bell, government affairs administrator for the Arizona Department of Economic Security's child support enforcement division.
The response from Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, a moderate Republican and avid sportsman, is perhaps typical of the broad support the child support components enjoy. In a state like Wyoming, where more people hunt and fish than vote, Mr. Geringer says the law sends a stern warning to noncustodial parents that the era of leniency is over.
"There might be a little bit of screaming initially but most hunters in my state have the same reaction I do which is: 'Make them pay up.' If they can afford to carry a gun or spend the afternoon fishing, they can afford to support their children," he says.
The states' highwaymen
Geringer doesn't believe enforcement will be an administrative nightmare as some envision. "We will not impose the burden upon the small mom-and-pop retail outlets where people buy the licenses," he says. "Rather, the implementation of the law will come at highway game checks and in looking through our computer databases."
He predicts the greatest benefit will be the law's tool as a deterrent that doesn't necessitate action. "I think more than anything the threat of revocation will be an inducement for people to keep up with their child support."
Agreeing with Geringer is Terry Grosz, the US Fish and Wildlife Service's assistant regional director for law enforcement in Denver.
"I've seen the gamut of reactions in the courtroom, everything from grown men shedding tears to pleading with the judge on their knees in a state of abject shock," he says. "When you look into the face of these men who have lost their licenses for illegal activities, you see people who are ashamed and sufficiently humbled. I hope that deadbeat dads and moms feel the same way."