New LA County Campaign Against ‘Deadbeat Dads’ Unfairly Targets Low-Income Fathers

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and LA County Child Support Services Department Director Steven Golightly recently announced a sweeping new campaign against so–called “deadbeat dads.” They say their new “Most Wanted Delinquent Parent” list is modeled on the FBI’s fabled “10 Most Wanted” list. On paper the 10 offenders owe over $2 million, but it’s very questionable that Cooley & Golightly will be collecting much—according to the California Judicial Council, 80% of California child support debtors earn poverty level wages.

Golightly’s action is particularly remarkable considering that the California Department of Child Support Services, which supervises the LACCSSD, issued a report in January which contradicts any possible rationale for this campaign.

According to the CDCSS, there are four primary factors creating child support arrearages in California: “high child support orders established for low–income obligors”; “a limited number of child support orders adjusted downward”; “establishment of retroactive child support orders”; and “accrual of 10 percent interest on child support debt.” Over a quarter of these arrears is interest.

The report was based on a study CDCSS contracted from the Urban Institute. According to the study, “assuming every effort was made to increase child support collections and reduce future arrears…only a quarter of the existing debt is collectible.”

The study found that California is particularly prone to turning dads into “deadbeats”—California arrearages are piling up “much faster” than those in the rest of the country. With only 12% of the US’ population, California’s arrearages represent 20% of the nation’s whole.

Unlike the “Most Wanted Deadbeat Parent” lists put out by most states and counties, the LACCSSD’s list does not contain the occupations of the “deadbeats.” One can understand why. Nationwide these lists are never comprised of well–heeled businessmen, lawyers, and accountants, but instead of fathers who do low wage and often seasonal work, and owe large sums of money which they could never hope to pay off. It is rare to find a person with even a college degree on these lists.

In recent years there have been several highly–publicized actions similar to LACCSSD’s, generally coupled with arrests. For example, last year Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott released the Texas “Top 10 Most Wanted Child Support Evaders.” Yet by Abbott’s own description, the Top 10 consisted of three general laborers, three construction laborers, a landscaper, a salesman, and two tradesmen.

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. Similarly, Kentucky’s list during its campaign sported only one obligor with an education, and the most common designation for occupation was “laborer.” Near the top of Arizona’s list during its campaign was a maintenance man who owed $90,223 and a roofer who owed $240,581.

How do men of such modest means end up with such fantastic arrearages? The child support system is largely 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 the support obligation.

To Cooley’s and Golightly’s credit, they did explain that some of the “deadbeats” they’re pursuing may be able to use California’s Compromise of Arrears Program. COAP allows some obligors to settle their artificially–inflated paper debts to the state for realistic amounts.

The problem is there has been little outreach done on COAP, so few obligors are aware of it. Less than 5,000 have used it since its inception in 2003. Moreover, it’s unlikely that those on the list will view the “Most Wanted” approach as much of an invitation to turn themselves in.

Golightly says he’s doing this so the “deadbeats” will “take care of their children.” This is misleading, because 70% of California’s child support debt is owed to the state, not to custodial parents.

It is understandable that taxpayers want money spent on welfare benefits to be repaid. Yet it makes little sense to hound low–income fathers, particularly since research shows that in some cases, were it not for child support, the men would still be playing a role in their children’s lives.

The Cooley/Golightly approach may be good politics, but it’s counterproductive policy.