Welfare Reform's Silver Bullet

THE Congress is about to consider dramatic changes in public assistance. But instead of focusing simply on getting people off the welfare rolls, we must seek ways to prevent families from getting there in the first place. One sure-fire, cost-effective essential step is improving child-support enforcement.

Each year, deadbeat parents - 89 percent are fathers, 11 percent are mothers - fail to pay more than $5 billion in child support - a sum greater than 40 percent of the entire federal cost of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The default rate on automobile loans is 3 percent, but we score an abominable 39 percent default rate in child-support payments. We love our cars; what about our children?

Fifty percent of our nation's 10 million custodial mothers are supposed to receive child support under court order. Of these, 25 percent receive nothing at all, while another 25 percent receive only partial payments. In fact, in 1989 only 37 percent of all single mothers received any child support. Thus many single parents have no option but to turn to AFDC. When deadbeat parents fail to pay, we all pay.

The Child Support Responsibility Act (H.R. 785), introduced by members of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, would fortify our state-based child-support system by strengthening and coordinating interstate enforcement. Based on the recommendations of the US Interstate Commission on Child Support Enforcement, our legislation will establish centralized registries of information on new child-support orders and assist in the tracking of delinquent parents.

H.R. 785 will also streamline state collections and disbursements. This will make it much easier for employers to comply with wage withholding laws and for custodial parents to obtain timely payments.

But the key to collecting child support is to make all states play by the same rules. With 50 different versions of family law and child-support regulations, states are often incapable of communicating with one another or enforcing interstate orders. Our bill addresses this critical issue by requiring all states to adopt the Uniform Interstate Family Act (UIFSA). A model law already in place in 20 states, UIFSA governs jurisdictional issues between states in child-support enforcement.

H.R. 785 will also significantly improve the rate of success in establishing paternity by allowing families in many cases to forgo costly and lengthy court procedures.

Importantly, the Child Support Responsibility Act has the enforcement teeth now missing from the system. It will expand penalties for child-support delinquency to include the denial of professional, occupational, recreational, and drivers' licenses to deadbeat parents and even the imposition of liens on property. Similarly, parents 90 days behind in support payments will be automatically reported to credit bureaus.

Our legislation would also subject federal employees to the same standards as nonfederal employees. H.R. 785 will even deny passports for those who are $5,000 or 24 months in arrears.

Research indicates that if all single parents who qualify went to court and received adequate child-support orders, and if these orders were reviewed annually to reflect the cost of living and were truly enforced, $34 billion in nongovernmental funds would go to our children in need. Instead, we wait until these children are so deprived of support that their families must turn to our welfare system.

Let's collect child support and keep families out of the welfare system. What are we waiting for? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept 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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