The Child Support Enforcement Act, introduced last week by House Policy Chairman Christopher Cox (R-CA) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), would require delinquent parents to pay taxes on their unpaid child support as if it were income. Cox explains that one of the bill's purposes is to "encourage parents to pay what they owe." However, this misguided piece of legislation--the latest salvo in the war against "deadbeat dads"--lies upon a foundation of illusions.
The first and biggest illusion is that, as Cox's press release noted, there is $78 billion owed in back child support nationwide. Arizona State University researcher Sanford Braver, in his book Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, explains that "unemployment is the single most important factor relating to nonpayment." Braver, who conducted the largest federally funded study of divorced dads ever done, notes that his findings were "consistent with virtually all past studies on the topic" and that it "belies the image that divorced fathers don't pay because they refuse to though they are truly able to pay." According to a US Government Accounting Office survey of custodial mothers who were not receiving the support they were owed, two-thirds of those fathers who do not pay their child support fail to do so because they are financially unable to do so.
The $78 billion figure is further inflated because it includes child support "owed" by fathers who lost their jobs or became disabled but were unable to get downward modifications in their child support. According to Elaine Sorensen of the Urban Institute, even among fathers who experience income drops of 15% or more, less than one in 20 are able to get courts to reduce their child support payments. In the interim, arrearages mount, along with interest (10% or more in many states) and penalties.
Also included in the $78 billion are fake arrearages caused by billing errors, which audits and evaluations have shown comprise a third of all arrearages in some states and counties. These errors include: mistaken identity; mathematical errors; failure to record or transfer records of payments; billing men for children they did not father; failing to stop child support when a child reaches the age of emancipation; accepting custodial parents' false reports of nonpayment; and failure to update child support orders with later court rulings affecting modifications.
Another illusion upon which the Child Support Enforcement Act rests is that states are not collecting money from many well-heeled child support evaders but this new tax penalty will spur them to pay up. Currently fathers who are behind on their child support are subjected to numerous penalties, including jail, the loss of driver's licenses and business licenses, wage garnishments, tax interceptions, and seizures of bank accounts and houses. It is hard to imagine that there are many evaders who have stoically endured all of these punishments but who will now decide to get out their checkbooks because of the Child Support Enforcement Act.
Instead of political grandstanding, Congress should intervene to improve the system both for those owed child support and those obligated to pay it. For one, the government should change the way it financially supports states' child support enforcement efforts. Currently state agencies are federally reimbursed for every child support dollar they collect, and thus are encouraged to grab and hold on to every dollar they can. The federal government should instead give block grants to states and establish yearly compliance evaluations which include stiff penalties for false collections and billing errors.
Also, the government must repeal the Bradley amendment, which mandates that child support arrearages cannot be modified or forgiven. The law, though perhaps well-intended, has ruined the lives of tens of thousands of men guilty of nothing more than of being laid off of their jobs or suffering disabling injuries. By prohibiting judges from resolving these injustices with debt modifications, these innocent men are permanently driven underground and out of their children's lives.
The third and most important reform needed is to enact measures to allow divorced and never married dads to remain a part of their children's lives. Most fathers have little chance of getting sole or even joint physical custody of their children, and little is done to ensure that fathers have access to their children. Left at the mercy of custodial parents, studies show that half or more of these fathers endure visitation interference or denial, and hundreds of thousands more are victims of "move-away moms" who permit or use geography to drive them out of their children's lives.
Braver's research indicates that fathers who have joint custody or regular visitation and who have jobs rarely fail to pay their child support. Child support compliance among those fathers who have been cast out of their children's lives is substantially lower. Enforcing children's right to have a father in their lives is as important as enforcing child support. And since the link between access to children and child support compliance is so strong, there can be no truly effective child support enforcement without it.
This column first appeared in the Sacramento Bee (8/1/02)
Glenn Sacks writes about gender issues from the male perspective. He can be reached at . Dianna Thompson is a founder and executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children (www.acfc.org). She can be contacted by e-mail at .