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Build a Realistic System That Encourages Fathers

Child support: Eliminating the disincentives for poor parents would improve therate of collection.

May 06, 1999|ELAINE SORENSEN | Elaine Sorensen is a principal research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington. The views expressed here are her own

The recent news that the Los Angeles district attorney's Bureau of Family Support faces a $50-million lawsuit because an employee heaped insults on a parent has raised red flags about child support collections. Given the disincentives built into the system, it is not surprising that the bureau is running into difficulties collecting support from poor noncustodial parents, most of whom are fathers.

In California, when fathers pay child support for the upkeep of their children on welfare, the child's family receives at most $50 each month of this support. The rest goes to the government as reimbursement for the family's welfare payments. This policy may sound reasonable: Why shouldn't the father help defer the cost of benefits for his family? Yet, this approach discourages noncustodial parents from making support payments since their children receive little direct benefit from the support paid on their behalf. Given the choice between supporting the system or their own kids, many fathers choose their kids, making payments under the table to the mothers of their children.

Allowing states to keep large shares of child support when children are on welfare encourages them to go after money where it is least likely to be found. Research shows that the fathers of children on welfare tend to be poor themselves. Putting the squeeze on them doesn't yield much money. And finding them can be tricky and expensive since many have no steady job or address.

Another disincentive to compliance occurs when fathers don't show up in court when their child support obligation is set. Child support orders in these cases often bear little relation to the fathers' income situation. In California when a case is brought by the district attorney and the father does not show up in court, the child support order is set equal to the minimum basic standard of adequate care for the mother and her children, which is $624 a month for two children. Most fathers of children on welfare cannot afford to pay this amount. So they don't.

A final disincentive within the child support system relates to fair play. Low-income noncustodial fathers are expected to pay at least part of the cost of providing a safety net for their children, while poor custodial mothers who actually receive welfare (along with their children) aren't. Even poor fathers who feel strongly obligated to their kids may chafe at this imbalance.

Given these disincentives to making regular child support payments, many poor fathers owe large sums of money to the government for providing welfare to their children. Eliminating these disincentives would herald a new day for welfare children under only one parent's wing, and the additional flexibility in designing welfare systems granted states in 1996 simplifies the task.

The child support enforcement system would work better and make more sense if all the child support paid on behalf of welfare families went directly to the families instead of being retained by the government. Compliance also would improve if a better effort were made to set realistic child support orders, even for those who fail to show up in court, and if back support owed to the government were forgiven or cut down to size. Making these changes would go a long way toward building stronger families.

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