'Deadbeat' dads - or just 'dead broke'?

Tough collection tactics ignore economic realities, more critics now say

Most divorced or never-married fathers with an outstanding child-support understand the high cost of falling behind. Those who don't pay up often face repercussions such as paycheck withholding, automobile-license suspension, even jail time.

Such aggressive pursuit of child-support dollars has not been without its problems - or critics. And perhaps surprisingly, the list of critics now includes more child-welfare advocates. Organizations including the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund (CDF) maintain that child-support policies need to recognize economic realities and be more flexible, particularly where low-income, noncustodial fathers are concerned.

"States are frequently not doing enough to help low-income fathers get employment so that they can pay child support," says Deborah Weinstein, director of CDF's Family Income Division.

"What we've found is that there's a fundamental tension here between what the fathers can actually financially contribute to their children and the children's needs," says Paula Roberts, senior staff attorney at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) in Washington.

Collection rate has doubled

For decades, federal, state, and local governments have worked together to locate noncustodial parents, establish paternity, set child-support guidelines, and enforce court orders.

But efforts to collect really began to pick up steam in the 1990s, largely because of changes resulting from the 1996 welfare-reform package. The measure streamlined paternity establishment by threatening to cut benefits to welfare recipients who failed to help identify a child's father.

Once paternity was established, states were able to employ any number of tactics to ensure that fathers support their children, including liens on homes and the withholding of up to 65 percent of a parent's wages.

The enforcement has paid off: The US child-support collection rate has doubled since 1995. In 2000, nearly $18 billion of the $23 billion owed by noncustodial parents was collected. Altogether, the support has been invaluable to many of the nation's 12 million single parents, nearly 10 million of whom are women, according to the US Census Bureau.

But the collection efforts have also created almost insurmountable problems for some low-income parents who are trying to support their children. Most state child-support-enforcement programs could be doing a much better job of distinguishing between so-called "deadbeat" fathers and "dead broke" fathers, Ms. Roberts says.

Also, reform advocates say, the recession has made it more difficult for low-income fathers to find and keep a job. Child-support debts can mount when fathers are out of work or incarcerated.

"We hear reports of fathers willing to pay [support] being thrown in jail for accumulating child-support debt. Instead of making it harder for fathers to earn a living, states should devise realistic payment plans, with job training and placement help," says Ms. Weinstein.

Even before the economy began to slide, meeting child-support payments has been a problem for low-income parents. Findings from the ongoing Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a joint project between Princeton and Columbia Universities, revealed that unwed fathers earn about $17,000 a year on average. With such low earnings, the study says, child-support orders need to be set at rates proportional to ability to pay.

"Poor fathers are routinely required to pay much higher proportions of their income than middle- and upper-income fathers," says Sara McLanahan, director of the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton. "Unrealistic arrearages arise because child-support agencies and courts base child-support payments not on fathers' actual earnings, but on their presumptive earnings."

Such "presumptive" earnings are often determined by calculating what a father made in a previous year, or on the minimum wage, multiplied, sometimes unrealistically, by full-time, full-year work, says Ms. McLanahan.

Instead, payment levels should be addressed by need-based reviews of existing child-support orders, reform advocates say. In theory, calculating support payments based on cost-of-living adjustments, job status, and reassessments of a child's need could ensure more consistent support for children.

Some suggest a more straightforward approach: "If child-support obligations were expressed as a flat percentage of the father's income in every state, many of these problems would be reduced," McLanahan notes.

Yet even that notion carries complications. Consider the recent lawsuit filed by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian against his ex-wife, challenging her demand of a small percentage of his annual income toward child support.

In early January, Lisa Bonder Kerkorian asked for $320,000 in monthly support for a 3-year-old girl which would be the highest child-support order ever awarded in California. Kerkorian, said to make about $1 million per day, is being asked to pay about 1 percent of his income.

(The case was clouded last week by Kerkorian's claim that existing DNA evidence shows he is not the girl's biological father.)

Forgiveness for fathers

Regardless, some states have begun to help low-income parents with cumbersome child-support debt loads. Iowa, Maryland, and several other states recently developed "forgiveness" policies. The measures waive a percentage of past-due payments, once payments are resumed for a number of consecutive months.

Above and beyond such programs, says child-support experts, states need to think about providing employment, parenting, and life skills to young men.

"[I]f we believe, as a matter of public policy, that families ought to be supporting themselves," emphasizes Roberts, "then we are going to have to do something to get some of these fathers in better shape to play an important role in their children's lives."

A new move to correct 'welfare disincentives'

In many ways, the strategies used to collect child support have improved the living standards of many single parents and their children.

Yet despite such gains, collection efforts grow more complicated with regard to child-support payments to mothers receiving welfare benefits. That's because such payments usually go to the state to recoup welfare and Medicaid expenses.

In 1999, for instance, federal and state governments kept $1.3 billion out of a total of $1.5 billion collected for welfare recipients. With most money going to the state, child-support reformers believe low-income fathers feel frustrated, and less motivated to meet the conditions of support orders.

"Children, not the state, should get the benefit of child-support collections," says Deborah Weinstein of the Children's Defense Fund. "As more and more families must leave welfare, it is especially important for them to receive child support directly, because that support will continue as they make the transition to work."

Only Wisconsin, Vermont, and Connecticut now have policies in place to distribute some or all collected child support directly to families on welfare.

But interest in the issue of low-income fathers and their ability to pay child support has picked up steam in Washington over the past few years.

When President Bush submits his budget to Congress today, he is expected to propose a dramatic change in the way welfare and child-support payments are handled. Under the president's proposal, all child-support payments from noncustodial fathers to their children on welfare would go directly to the family.

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