The federal government’s child support enforcement program is largely built around a single goal: Extracting money from fathers.
“The way that the system is set up is that the government child support agencies in the states have incentives to collect as much as possible from the families in their case load,” said Joy Moses, a senior policy analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress. “Oftentimes, when you talk to folks in the child support community, they are highly focused on how are they going to meet that goal. How are they going to increase collection? Because that’s their world.”
That framework, however, doesn’t necessarily support the best interests of all families — and particularly those with poor fathers. For that reason, Moses is among the advocates who have been calling for changes in how the program is run, as well as a wholesale shift in how we think about child support and those low-income fathers who are frequently in its crosshairs.
Moses believes the system should be geared less toward persecuting those men and more toward enabling their families to be successful. Currently, the one goal sometimes gets in the way of the other. A low-income father who lands in jail or loses his driver’s license because of child support nonpayment only becomes even less likely to fulfill his financial obligation.
A more effective system might take those fathers who are willing to pay, but just don’t have the money, and put them in job programs instead of jail.
Research also suggests that fathers who get to see their children are more likely to pay child support. Punishments such as jail time certainly don’t facilitate such visits. But most state child support agencies devote little of their focus and funding to visitation programs. At the federal level, the government allocates only $10 million a year — a figure Moses says has been constant for nearly a decade — to fund grants for visitation programs across all 50 states. (The entire child support enforcement program, on the other hand, cost $5.8 billion to run last year).
“There is a perception that the child support system should be tough on fathers,” Moses said. “So when you talk about some of these [ideas], that’s perceived as not being tough enough.”
That’s one of the major conceptual barriers to changing the system. But Moses draws a distinction between those fathers who just don’t want to pay — on whom agencies should be tough — and those who can’t pay because the unemployment insurance has run out or the next job has been impossible to find.
“Our concern is about a subset of men who really are struggling to work, who really are struggling to pay the support,” she said. “And rather than punishing them for some barriers they’re experiencing, we suggest maybe we should address those barriers.”
Visitation programs and employment supports would be a great place to start. Federal regulations, however, restrict how state agencies can spend their enforcement budgets, limiting their ability to experiment with some of these solutions. Giving states more flexibility, then, could also help.
Moses speculates that the current system may also be having some negative side effects that researchers have yet to measure.
“When a father begins to associate the child and the mother of his child with a series of problems that he’s now experiencing in his life due to the child support system, does that in some ways strain the relationships that he has with them?” she asked. “That is an important question. If you associate your child with ‘Oh, I had to go to jail, someone is chasing me down for money,’ that might not be contributing to a positive fatherhood experience.”
Moses recognizes that she’s asking for a sea change in a government bureaucracy. She’s also asking, though, for an open mind in how the public views the policy challenge of fathers who can’t or don’t support their own children.
“When we talk about men and providing for their children, we have an attitude in society that they should just be able to do it, and they should be able to find a way to do it, because that’s what a man does. I think that we need to step back from that a little bit and say for some men, that’s not going to be the case,” she said.
Those men, in other words, may need a hand.
“So often, what we do as far as social services is focused on women and children,” she noted. “I think culturally, we feel like that’s OK because they are a group of people who need societal protection, societal help. It’s hard to get people to think that sometimes that should apply to men as well.”