Making Parents Pay

A new report on child-support collection by the General Accounting Office (GAO) says parents shirk court orders to pay child support in 4 of every 5 cases. And federal efforts to help states increase compliance rates have failed.

It's not that the states haven't been trying. They've taken nonpaying fathers' wages, cut uncooperative mothers' welfare checks, suspended driver's licenses, all in an attempt to get scofflaw parents to pay up. Some states have had more success than others. But most, the GAO says, have underestimated the complexity of the problem and the costs involved.

The situation is made more urgent by changes in the welfare law. But that same legislation is also requiring states to take an essential step: centralizing and automating their child-support collection systems.

A necessary step, but a challenging one, too. The deadline for completing this task, set for October, may be extended - for the second time. To date, only 15 states have met the requirement. If California and eight other states miss the deadline, as they say they might, 44 percent of the national caseload would be excluded from the automated system. California, for one, is debating whether to continue with its glitch-prone new program or scrap it for another.

If states fail to complete the project, Reps. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois and Lynn Woolsey (D) of California are ready with another plan: to take support collection away from the states and turn it over to the Internal Revenue System. Deducting child support from paychecks, like taxes, might work, but the proposal isn't likely to get past those in Congress who are loathe to give the IRS any more power.

Ultimately, the answer lies not just with changing laws but also with changing attitudes. A number of programs in a handful of states offer "noncustodial parents" (usually fathers) the same kind of job training and counseling that female welfare recipients get. Twenty-five states have chosen to extend welfare benefits to households where two parents are present. And a Baltimore program specifically addresses obstacles such as substance abuse and unemployment that keep parents from supporting their children.

More public and private programs like these, in addition to stricter, more comprehensive enforcement methods, should go far in encouraging parents to fulfill their obligations - both financial and emotional - to their children.

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