Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Cut's in Child Support Enforcement Funding

I would say "Here we go again", but there are some big differences between this and the destruction of the Department of Human Services in Texas. In the case of DHS, they have always been the red-headed step-child of state government, did not have a leader who was opposing the cuts, and had no significant republicans opposing the cuts. In the case of Child Support Enforcement, most politicians like to say that they are in favor of making dead-beat parents pay, the head of the agency that handles Child Support (Greg Abbott) is a rising star republican who is vocally opposed to these cuts, and one of our senators (John Cornyn) is also vocally opposed, and he used to be the head of that same agency too.

Nevertheless, I can't say that I am unconcerned with the cuts that have recently been passed. I hope that they will be corrected before they result in a significant cut in Child Support Enforcement, but we shall see.

In any case, I wanted to comment on some really dumb comments that have been published in several papers of late by Glenn Sacks:

It is true that federal figures show that over $20 billion in child support is collected nationwide yearly, and that only $5 billion is spent on enforcement. However, the vast majority of the funds collected are not done through enforcement tactics—they’re simply the payments already being made by law-abiding noncustodial parents. These payments will continue to be made regardless of the cuts.

Mr. Sacks asserts that these payments will be made regardless of enforcement efforts, but the fact is that there are many parents who pay promptly each month in large part because they know they may end up in court with a contempt charge and face being on probation and possible jail time. Even well intentioned parents might be more inclined to let a payment or two slip when other priorities seem more pressing, if there are no real consequences to doing so.

The myth that child support enforcement is a bargain was created by incorrectly counterposing total collections with expenditures on enforcement. In reality, much if not most child support enforcement funds are frittered away in misguided attempts to collect artificially inflated paper arrearages from low-income men who couldn’t possibly pay them. Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earned less than $10,000 in the previous year; less than four percent of the overall national child support debt is owed by those earning $40,000 or more a year. According to the largest federally-funded study of divorced dads ever conducted, unemployment, not willful neglect, is the largest cause of failure to pay child support. The inflated arrearages are created in large part because the child support system is mulishly impervious to the economic realities working-class people face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, unemployment, and work-related injuries. According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who suffers a substantial drop in income is able to get courts to reduce his or her child support payments. In such cases, the amounts owed mount quickly, as do interest and penalties.

It should be obvious that the bulk of Child Support Enforcement is focused on making people pay who happen to be the ones not paying. What sense would it make to focus on those who are? Obviously those with smaller incomes are going to tend to have more difficulty, but their children need to eat, be clothed, and sheltered too. And if they can pay, they should be made to pay.

I would agree that it is unfortunate that there are no provisions made for short term financial difficulties for the non-custodial parents. The biggest reason for this is that It takes about 6 months to get a case in court, and so as the law currently stands, it makes no sense to take a case to court for a short term change in income, because we will wind up taken the same case to court over and over again, with each fluctuation in income... and we simply lack the funding to do that.

Mr. Sacks would have the funding cut further, would would make it even more difficult to review cases. But apparently, he simply prefers that court orders go un-enforced, rather than that they be modified.

A better solution would be to modify child support laws to where there is more flexibility for child enforcement agencies to modify child support orders. This would require new legislation, and it would also require MORE rather than less funding.