By now, it is blatant that there are numerous flaws with the child support system in the United States.
The issues have been brought to the forefront after the incident in South Carolina where Walter Scott was shot and killed by a police officer after it is believed that he fled from the officer out of fear of being jailed for missed child support payments.
On Sunday, the New York Times published a detailed story that explained why the system is broken.
We hear all about the problems with the system. It’s punitive. It is based on outdated stereotypes. It makes it too easy for low-income fathers to fall behind. Etc.
What we don’t hear much about is how to realistically go about fixing these issues.
In an interesting article published on thinkprogress.org, Bryce Covert suggests that the U.S. should look to the model used in Europe as a possible solution. It is a compelling argument worth considering.
The article, titled “The Brilliant Idea From Europe That Could Revolutionize Child Support,” notes that as of 2010, every European country except the Netherlands guaranteed child support payments to custodial parents regardless of whether or not the noncustodial parent could pay. In Sweden, all custodial parents are guaranteed a child support payment from the government and then the government collects what it can from the noncustodial parents.
If the aim of child support is to get the custodial parent the support they need, then the system seems to work as 95 percent of the parents receive child support payments.
The article points out that any reform of this nature would need to be coupled with an overhaul in how what noncustodial parents owe is calculated.
In many states, child support doesn’t change even when a father is unemployed. The support is still based on the parent’s supposed earning capacity.
Many fathers pay as much as 65 percent of their wages in child support and arrearages to the state while 70 percent of the national uncollected child support debt is owed by noncustodial parents with no quarterly earnings or annual earnings below $10,000.
Child support debt is also allowed to accrue even if a parent ends up imprisoned, creating modern-day debtors’ prisons.
Irwin Garfinkel, a professor of social work at Columbia University, argues that the child support obligation should always be calculated as a percentage of the noncustodial parent’s actual income.
“That would protect the fathers,” he told thinkprogress.org. “If you express the obligations as a percent of income, it would automatically reduce the amount of harassment possible.”
Of course, a guaranteed payment program would come at a cost. However, Garfinkel estimated that guaranteeing parents a payment even as high as $3,000 a year would cost the government $10 billion, which is a small drop of the overall $3.5 trillion budget Washington had in 2014.
Such a change should also be considered an investment that would surely yield enormous societal benefits. Single parents would have more income to invest in their children. Children would have more stable living environments, which would aid their development. And it would surely cure some of the ills caused by parental incarceration considering as many as 50,000 are behind bars for missed payments.
Obviously, there are numerous dynamics that would prevent the European system of child support from being used as a carbon-copy solution in the U.S. But at the very least, it offers a starting point that government leaders could examine and tweak to help fix many of the country’s woes.