A new law in Texas is just the latest example of how counterproductive and harsh on low-income parents the modern child support system can be.
Beginning this fall, Texas parents who fail to pay child support for at least six months won’t be able to renew their vehicle registration. Registration blocking will be added to the list of other collection mechanisms. The state can also garnish wages, block unemployment benefits, deny passports, and suspend drivers’ licenses.
Taking steps to ensure that children are financially provided for, regardless of their parents’ marital status, seems noble, at least on the surface.
The problem is that too often the system pushes parents who are struggling financially into a spiral of unending debt that ends up harming entire families.
According to the most recent data from the Office of Child Support and Enforcement, 662,000 of the 5.2 million people in the U.S. who owed child support in 2010 were incarcerated.
Child support arrears can still accumulate when parents are behind bars – something many of them fail to realize until a massive amount of debt has accumulated.
In some states, such as Georgia and North Dakota, incarceration is considered voluntary unemployment, which means it isn’t possible to petition for a reduction in child support payments.
Once released from prison, employment prospects for former inmates are usually grim. Up to 60% of former inmates are still unemployed a year after their release. If they continue missing payments, they could have their license suspended, their credit report damaged, their property seized, their passport suspended, or even return to jail.
These are all measures that make it essentially impossible for the parent to earn a livable wage. Which makes it impossible to provide financial support for their child. With so much debt and no way to increase their income, many guys are forced to either work off the books or leave town and abandon their children.
The cycle is vicious and defies logic. Rather than protecting children, the child support system drives a wedge between families.
The system makes the assumption that most parents who fail to pay child support do so because they don’t care about their kids. In reality, most parents who miss payments do so because they simply don’t have the money.
Qualitative research seems to indicate that even when fathers are unable to make payments, they still do what they can to provide support in non-cash goods.
Coming up with workable solutions to this massive problem isn’t easy.
A state-funded pilot program in Colorado that utilizes rehabilitative techniques rather than punitive ones has yielded some positive results, albeit with a small sample size. The U.S. could also consider a child support model more similar to the one used in Europe where 95 percent of parents receive their payments.
What is clear is that more attention needs to be given to this dilemma. Fortunately, the National Parents Organization is conducting a major study of the child support system. Hopefully, its findings will lead to greater public awareness of this crisis and finally lead to meaningful child support reform.