The Utah Senate is currently considering a bill that will allow the Utah Office of Recovery Services to have the driver’s licenses of “deadbeat” parents seized if they fall 60 days behind on their child support. HB 15, which passed the House 43-25, is being touted as a “tough but fair” way to get Utah’s 72,000 child support evaders to pony up the $325 million they allegedly owe.
While the bill’s supporters are understandably concerned about the economic issues faced by custodial parents, their support for HB 15 is based on several incorrect assumptions. For over two decades the public has been inundated with images of high-flying divorced dads selfishly stiffing their kids. Yet Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earn poverty level wages; less than four percent of the national child support debt is owed by those earning $40,000 or more a year. According to the largest federally-funded study of divorced dads ever conducted, unemployment, not willful neglect, is the largest cause of failure to pay child support.
HB 15's supporters say they’re confident that the bill’s punitive measures will be aimed only at obligors who are able to pay, but who refuse to. Yet child support enforcement agencies rarely follow this humane, intelligent approach.
Over the past 18 months, “deadbeat parents” have been the targets of highly-publicized law enforcement actions in Texas, Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona. Texas’ Attorney General Greg Abbott said those on his list of Top 10 evaders were “singled out” because they “have the ability” to pay but “refuse to do so.” Yet his list consists largely of unskilled laborers, not one of whom appears to have an education. The big wage earner in the group is a plumber. One wonders what the financial condition of those who weren’t “singled out” for their ability to pay is.
Virginia’s “Most Wanted” list was topped by a laborer, a carnival hired hand, and a construction worker, who collectively somehow owed over a quarter million dollars in child support. Kentucky’s list sported only one obligor with an education, and the most common designation for occupation was “laborer.” Near the top of Arizona’s list was a maintenance man who owed $90,223 and a roofer who owed $240,581.
How did men of such humble means end up owing so much money? The arrearages are likely created in large part because the child support system is often mulishly impervious to the economic realities working people face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, unemployment, and work-related injuries. According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who suffers a substantial drop in income is able to get courts to reduce his or her child support payments.
Worse, by federal law child support orders cannot be retroactively modified, no matter how mistaken, misguided or ridiculous. Nor does the interest on their debts stop accruing. Moreover, child support enforcement agencies are notorious for creating erroneous arrearages through bureaucratic bungling.
While fathers are usually blamed for divorce’s negative economic impact on children, what’s often overlooked is the simple fact that the income that once supported one household cannot support two at the same level, no matter how many punitive measures the government employs or how much fathers pay. Those who insist that the average child’s standard of living will not or should not decline after a divorce are kidding themselves.
Much if not most of Utah’s $325 million paper child support debt is uncollectible. Instead of enacting new punitive measures, the legislature should concentrate on fixing the child support system’s myriad problems.
- Southern Utah News3/14/07