It is rare for a major politician to propose well–informed measures about fathers and fatherhood during an election campaign. While Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is not normally a beloved figure in the fatherhood movement, her new Youth Opportunity Agenda reflects a commendable understanding of the problems faced by African–American fathers.
The Urban League’s 2007 report on the state of black America concluded that the child support system and its abuses are a major problem for African–American men. The report found that the system represents a large, hidden “tax” on the already meager earnings of many black men. This tax drives some out of their children’s lives, and either underground or into crime.
Half of uneducated African American men ages 25–34 are non–custodial fathers. The child support they struggle to pay usually does not go to their children, but instead goes to the state to reimburse the cost of public assistance, including welfare, for the mother and children. This is demoralizing for low–income men struggling to make a difference in their kids’ lives. Some of these fathers even live with their children and their children’s mothers, yet their wages are still garnisheed to pay child support to the state.
Research shows that allowing the child support to go directly to the custodial parent promotes fathers’ bonds with their kids. Federal incentive funds mold the states’ child support policies. Clinton pledges to “work with states and counties to ensure that they have support and incentives to pass on every dollar of child support” directly to the men’s children.
Many minority noncustodial fathers have spent time in prison, often for nonviolent drug offenses. Under the current system, these men rack up thousands of dollars in child support arrearages while they are incarcerated. Interest accrues rapidly, and upon release many ex–offenders struggle under a staggering debt they could never hope to pay off. Some even return to jail for nonpayment.
To address this problem, Clinton says she will “encourage states to take more realistic, cooperative approaches to managing arrears, so that fathers leaving prison are not immediately saddled with unrealistic payment obligations.”
Clinton also recognizes that many states’ child support guidelines are excessive, noting:
“Child support payments can represent half of [low–income] men’s income, and can provide a strong incentive to work in the underground economy.”
According to the Urban League, low–income men in arrears on child support sometimes keep as little as a third of their paychecks.
Clinton’s proposals are a good start, but much more needs to be done to address the problems low–income fathers face. Economist Harry Holzer, a co–author of the Urban League report, recommends forgiving the arrearages that low–income fathers owe to the government. While this proposal may not be politically popular, it makes very good policy.
Low–income fathers’ arrearages mount in large part because the child support system is impervious to the economic realities low–income fathers face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, chronic unemployment, and work–related injuries. Low–income fathers have very little access to affordable legal help, and an unemployed construction worker usually doesn’t have the money to get professional legal assistance to help him get a child support modification. According to an Urban Institute study, less than one in 20 non–custodial parents who suffer substantial income drops are able to get courts to reduce their child support payments.
California’s Compromise of Arrears Program provides an example of the type of pragmatic approach these men need. According to a California Judicial Council report, 80% of California child support debtors earn poverty level wages, and over a quarter of the arrears total is interest. Under COAP, these obligors can settle their paper debts to the state for realistic amounts.
Sacramento legislative advocate Michael Robinson, who worked on the legislation, explains:
“Rather than engaging in the ‘we’ll crack down on deadbeats’ chest–thumping so often employed by politicians, COAP is a common sense, everybody wins solution. Instead of hounding and jailing low income dads, the COAP program allows these dads to provide their children real support, both emotional and financial.”
The federal government should use its incentive funds to influence states to institute similar and more extensive programs. The costs of current policies far outweigh the value of the child support collected. Allowing more low–income men to be functional fathers benefits them, their children, and their children’s mothers.
Elections usually are a bad time for family policy, as applause lines about punishing “deadbeat dads” are often substituted for rational, informed thinking about fathers and fatherhood. Several candidates have been bashing so–called “deadbeat dads,” including Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson. Clinton’s proposals are a modest but tangible step forward in addressing the weighty issues low–income dads face.
- Black Press USA Network1/25/08