Federal Child Support Enforcement Cuts Will Hurt Bureaucrats, Not Children

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

Democrats, women’s advocates, the National Governors Association, and child support enforcement officials are sounding the alarm over proposed cuts in the federal funds that subsidize states’ child support enforcement efforts. The cuts, which recently passed the House, will reduce federal reimbursement from 66% of the states’ costs to 50% over five years.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, this will lead to $24 billion in child support going uncollected over the next 10 years. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Los Angeles County Child Support Services Department Director Philip Browning are warning that the cuts will mean a drastic reduction in the amount of child support collected. A bipartisan group of senators has penned a letter opposing the cuts, explaining that "in 2004, more than $4 was collected in support for every dollar invested in the program." All of these claims, however, are based on false assumptions and misleading data.

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. 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.

For example, a recent Urban Institute study found that only 25% of California’s $14.4 billion child support arrearage will be collected over the next decade because the support amounts demanded of noncustodial parents are not realistic. The average arrears owed per debtor is $3,000 higher than the median annual earnings of employed child support debtors. Those in the poorest category have a child support debt amounting to their full net income for seven and a half years.

The "Most Wanted Deadbeat Parents" lists put out by most states demonstrate this problem. In the past few months, "deadbeat parents" have been the targets of highly-publicized law enforcement actions in Virginia, Texas, Kentucky, and Arizona. Yet Virginia’s "Most Wanted" list is topped by a laborer, a carnival hired hand, and a construction worker, who collectively somehow owe over a quarter million dollars in child support. Of all the parents on Texas’ and Kentucky’s lists, only one appears to have an education, and the most common designation for occupation is "laborer." Near the top of Arizona’s list is a maintenance man who owes $90,223, an unemployed man of no known occupation who owes $54,298, and, best of all, a roofer who owes $240,581.

This week Abbott boasted that he had arrested one of the "deadbeats" on his "Most Wanted" list–Charles Silva, who owes almost $40,000 in child support. Yet it’s doubtful that Silva will be writing a five figure check any time soon–Silva’s occupation is "general laborer." Far from being lists of well-heeled businessmen, lawyers, and accountants, the vast majority of the men on these lists do low wage and often seasonal work, and owe large sums of money which they could never hope to pay off.

Child support enforcement agencies are notorious for their abusive tactics towards such men, as well as their mind-numbing incompetence, waste, and the incessant computer errors which lead to the persecution of innocent citizens.

It is true, as critics of the cuts say, that the amount of child support collected by child support enforcement programs has increased from $2.4 billion in 1977 (2004 dollars) to nearly $22 billion in 2004. However, most of this increase has nothing to do with enforcement. For one, there are far more children receiving child support now than there were in 1977, in part because of welfare reform, which has obligated the fathers of children on welfare to pay child support to the states. Also, the amount of child support demanded from noncustodial parents rose sharply during the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, whereas most child support used to be paid directly from the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent, today most child support goes through the state systems, creating the illusion of increased collections.

For too long child support policies have been determined by politics instead of common sense; the mantra of "help women and children" has allowed large-scale abuses and waste to go unchallenged. The proposed cuts won’t interfere with efforts to collect legitimate child support, but they will save taxpayers $15.8 billion over the next decade. They will also force some discipline and restraint onto an area of government which sorely needs it.