When Beating up on ‘Deadbeat Dads’ is Unfair

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

The television station shows three general laborers, three construction laborers, a landscaper, a salesman and two tradesmen, most of them Latino men with dour expressions on their faces. Are they the featured men in a report about hard times for blue-collar workers in the state of Texas? The hopefuls for a local job training program? No–they are Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s "Top 10 Most Wanted Child Support Evaders."

The 10 men collectively owe nearly $700,000 in back child support. Not one appears to have an education, and the big wage earner in the group is a plumber. Abbott says he "singled out" these men because they "have the ability" to pay their child support but "refuse to do so." One wonders what the financial condition of those not "singled out" is.

For the past month Abbott has been publicizing lists with the men’s photos and biographical information. The lists have been published or reported on in dozens of Texas media outlets.

Abbott recently proclaimed the list a success, after he arrested the landscaper–who owed $109,747–the salesman, and one of the construction laborers. The two highest-ranked evaders still on the lam are the welder, who owes $130,796, and one of the general laborers, who owes $94,107. Few, if any, are asking the obvious question–how did men of such humble means end up owing so much money?

While none on Abbott’s list would or should qualify for Father of the Year, the arrearages are likely 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.

Abbott’s office backhandedly acknowledges the difficulties men in these situations face, advising obligors "it is best to get a lawyer, if you can afford one, to handle your attempt to change the amount of child support you owe." Yet how many unemployed blue-collar workers can afford to hire an attorney at $200 an hour or more to represent them in a child support case?

By federal law, child support orders cannot be retroactively modified, no matter how mistaken, misguided or ridiculous. Even men who fell behind on their child support because they had heart attacks, broken legs or cancer cannot have their arrearages eliminated. And much of the arrearages owed by Abbott’s "Top 10? accrued before 2002, when Texas charged obligors 12% interest, one of the highest interest rates in the country.

Also, under Texas law, an obligor who owes only three months of past-due child support can have his driver’s license or other professional licenses suspended, interfering with his ability make a living.

To be fair, Abbott’s "Top 10? list is not unusual. Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earned poverty-level wages; less than four percent of the national child support debt is owed by those earning $40,000 or more a year.

In the past 18 months, "deadbeat parents" have been the targets of similar, highly-publicized law enforcement actions in Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona. Virginia’s "Most Wanted" list was topped by a laborer, a carnival hired hand, and a construction worker, who collectively somehow owed over a quarter million dollars in child support. Kentucky’s list sported only one obligor with an education, and the most common designation for occupation was "laborer." Near the top of Arizona’s list was a maintenance man who owed $90,223, an unemployed man of no known occupation who owed $54,298, and, best of all, a roofer who owed $240,581.

While Abbott’s list no doubt contains a few bad actors, the larger problem lies not with non-custodial parents, but instead with the child support system. Arresting low-income parents is neither fair nor useful. What’s needed instead is an overhaul of the system, so that blue-collar workers aren’t turned into criminals because they’ve failed to pay obligations which are beyond their reach.