The Kansas House just passed a highly publicized bill that would allow the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to have the driver’s licenses of so-called "deadbeat" parents seized if they have child-support arrearages of $500 or more. House Bill 2706 is scheduled for a Senate hearing today.
While such measures always make for good sound bites and electoral politics, they make poor public policy. That’s because the vast majority of those behind on child support are low-income parents who have been saddled with artificially inflated paper arrearages that they couldn’t possibly pay.
Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earn poverty level wages; less than four percent of the 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 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 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. Only three states charge a higher interest rate on past due support than Kansas’ 12 percent.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that child support enforcement agencies are notorious for their errors and bureaucratic bungling. Audits and evaluations have shown that such errors often comprise a significant portion of arrearages.
The "Most Wanted Deadbeat Parents" lists put out by many states illustrate this problem. 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. Even a person with a college degree is a rare find on these lists.
Perhaps this is why while DSRS recently announced that their top five deadbeats owe an average of $225,000 in back child support, they have refused to disclose these individuals’ occupations. The pot of child support gold which DSRS Secretary Gary Daniels professes he’ll find if he gets "the [enforcement] tools that some other states have" simply does not exist.
Family courts’ tragic indifference towards protecting noncustodial parents’ relationships with their children is also part of the problem. According to the Children’s Rights Council, a Washington, DC-based children’s advocacy group, more than five million American children each year have their access to their noncustodial parents interfered with or blocked by custodial parents. Because so many noncustodial parents must wage expensive court battles in order to see their children, money which could be going to their kids instead goes to lawyers.
HB 2706’s $500 arrearage limit is particularly misguided and destructive. A Kansas father of three who earns a pre-tax income of $3,850 a month pays about $1,050 a month in child support. If he is out of work for even a brief period, HB 2706’s punitive measures could impede his ability to earn a living, sending him into a downward spiral of arrearages and debt.
Dads aren’t the only ones affected, since noncustodial mothers in the child support system are significantly more likely to be in arrears than fathers. Like many "deadbeat dads," most of these mothers never walked out on their children, but instead were made into delinquents by the rigidity and unrealistic expectations of the system.
Daniels says a crackdown is needed because only 54 percent of Kansas children who are owed support receive their full shares. However, DSRS is already able to get drivers’ licenses suspended through contempt of court proceedings. The real problem is that the vast majority of the child support debt is simply uncollectible. Instead of enacting new draconian measures, the legislature should instead mandate that DSRS focus its enforcement efforts on true scofflaws with real arrearages instead of hard luck parents with counterfeit ones.
- Wichita Eagle3/8/06