The administration, in its final weeks, is planning to ease the legal obligations prisoners have to pay child support while they are incarcerated.
According to a White House official, new rules proposed would require that prisoners be allowed to lower their child support payments they pay in prison in order to prevent arrears from accumulating that make it impossible for inmates to repay once they are released, which often leads to reincarceration.
The new rules should be completed before Obama leaves office in January, according to the official.
A similar bill was proposed last year, but was blocked in the House of Representatives.
Currently, most states do have laws that enable prisoners to modify their child support payments, but 14 still do not allow it or place major obstacles in the way of doing so.
Critics of the proposed rules worry this will allow fathers to skirt their support responsibilities, but the current system makes it far too easy for well-intentioned parents to fall into an unending cycle of debt.
For example, if a dad loses his job, the court will not necessarily pause payments. If too many arrears accumulate, he could face jail time, and debt could continue to accumulate.
Once he is released, finding work could be a challenge since former inmates often struggle to find and maintain employment. And even though it is illegal to deny a parent visitation for owed child support, it is not uncommon for one parent to do so.
Without a job or access to his kids, and saddled with arrears he can’t afford, the father has a very steep climb to once again become a productive member of society. Especially considering positive familial relationships and employment are two of the most important factors in helping prisoners reenter the community.
Dad doesn’t get to see his kids. The mother and child don’t receive any support. No one wins as the child support system completely fails the entire family.
Last year, journalist Eli Hager wrote an in-depth piece for The Marshall Project that investigated how child support becomes a crushing debt for men in prison. He noted that the system’s procedures are based largely on the deadbeat dad myth, which research consistently debunks.
“I think the most problematic aspect of how it operate now is it operates on a moralistic model instead of a practical model, and it’s all about deadbeat dads,” Hager said. “They’re going to go after you no matter what because it’s your fault and the poverty of these families is the fault of the fathers when really what you learn from the research is that if you take a more practical approach, setting child support orders that are practically payable for fathers gets them to pay a lot more money.”
With a sense of growing desperation, a lot of guys feel they have no choice but to turn to illegal activities to make ends meet.
“When they come out, they just feel overwhelmed by the debt,” Hager said, “especially when it was pursued aggressively by the child support agency, and a lot of times it encouraged them to go underground or avoid the formal economy and find other ways to make cash because there was no way to formally have a job without losing 65 to 70 percent of your paycheck to these arrears that accumulated during prison.”
The new rules are unlikely to be a silver bullet that cures all the system’s woes, but at the very least they are, hopefully, a significant step in the right direction.