Some States Are Cutting Poor Dads A Deal On Unpaid Child Support

Nov 20, 2015
Originally published on November 20, 2015 12:07 pm

When the state of Maryland wanted to reach dads who were behind on their child support payments, it started in the boarded-up blocks of West Baltimore, in neighborhoods marked by drugs, violence and unemployment.

In just four zip code areas, the state identified 4,642 people who owed more than $30 million in back child support. Most of that was "state-owed," meaning that rather than going to the child through the custodial parent, it's supposed to reimburse taxpayers for welfare paid to the child's mother.

This is a source of great resentment for many men, who say they want their money to go to their children. But most who owe it can't pay anyway, as they earn less than $10,000 a year.

"So even if we use taxpayer dollars to chase 'em down, and we catch 'em, right, and we go into their pockets, there's nothing in there," says Joe Jones of Baltimore's Center for Urban Families.

Are they deadbeat?

Joseph DiPrimio, head of Maryland's child support enforcement office, doesn't like that expression.

"I think that's vulgar. I don't use it," he says.

DiPrimio prefers "dead broke."

"We're talking about individuals that are economically challenged, they're underemployed, but they want to do the right thing," he says.

Unpaid child support in the U.S. has climbed to $113 billion, and enforcement agencies have given up on collecting much of it. They say too many men simply don't have the money.

What's more, research shows that high child-support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless that they give up trying to pay it.

Breaking Through The Distrust

Like a growing number of state government officials, Maryland's DiPrimio wanted to make parents an offer. But he needed their trust, and that was a problem.

Research shows high child support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless that they give up trying to pay it.

And sting operations to round up parents who owed child support have happened all over the country, including Baltimore. In a typical ruse, agencies have sent fake letters telling parents they won tickets to a football bowl game, for instance — but when they showed up to collect, they were arrested instead.

To break through years of distrust, Maryland sent letters to parents with the logo of the Center for Urban Families, a nonprofit in West Baltimore that provides job training and other help to poor families.

They made this offer: If the parent takes the center's month-long employment training course and lands a job, the state will forgive 10 percent of his or her child support debt. If they complete a Responsible Fatherhood program, the state will write off another 15 percent. One of the first persons to sign up was a mother, though the vast majority of noncustodial parents are men.

In a separate "debt compromise" program, Maryland will also write off 50 percent of a parent's child support debt if they maintain monthly payments for a year.

Response has been slow. In two years, slightly more than 100 parents have signed on.

Many of them attend fatherhood meetings like one held on a recent Wednesday night. Two dozen men — 20-something to middle age, in sweats and in suits — sit in a large square.

Some complain their exes won't let them see their child if they haven't paid child support. Others don't understand why it doesn't count as support when they take their kids out to eat, or buy them clothes — or say they would do those sorts of things for their kids if their child support obligation wasn't so heavy.

Mostly, like 30-year-old Lee Ford, they say it's so hard to find work

"You telling me no matter what, I gotta pay. But I can't get a job to work to save my soul," he says.

Group leader Eddie White cuts no slack.

"If you know you got a criminal record, sure it's gonna be hard for you to get a job. But it don't mean you can't work," White says.

A big part of this class is also educational. White asks the men what a person who is paying child support should do if he gets laid off or loses his job.

"There you go, that's the word. Immediately," White says. "Immediately ask the court for an adjustment."

Other Approaches To Debt Relief

Maryland's program is part of a larger effort to keep impoverished parents from racking up child support debt in the first place.

Some states are trying to speed up the cumbersome process of adjusting an order when a parent loses a job. Ohio has experimented with sending simple reminders — by phone, mail or text — to parents who need to send in monthly payments. Texas has reached out to newly incarcerated parents, to let them know they can apply to have their payments reduced while in prison — something not all states allow.

"We sent out a teaser postcard trying to combat the ostrich effect," says Emily Schmidt, a research analyst with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, who helped with the Texas effort.

Schmidt says there was concern that someone going through the emotional transition of incarceration wouldn't likely be thinking about child support, and may not even open a letter from the state. So they printed the postcard on blue paper to stand out, and, taking a cue from marketers, it said, "Four easy steps to lowering your child support."

After 100 days, the response rate among parents was up 11 percent, "a very low-cost intervention for a fairly dramatic effect," Schmidt says.

The Obama administration wants to "right size" child support orders from the start, and has proposed regulations to make sure they are set according to what parents actually earn. Officials say some jurisdictions base orders on a full-time minimum wage, even if a parent earns far less. They say this can backfire, leaving so little money after a parent's wages are garnished that he or she quits and works underground instead.

The White House's proposals also would provide more job training for parents with child support debt — something Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says is a good investment.

"More fathers will get a job, more fathers will have earnings, and more fathers will use those earnings to pay child support," he says.

So far, that's what's happened in Baltimore. The numbers are small. But the amount of child support that's been paid is more than double the amount of debt written off.

Maryland wants to expand its child support debt forgiveness program, hoping to help more parents to pay what they can.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Despite decades of cracking down on deadbeat dads, unpaid child support in the U.S. has climbed to well over $100 billion. Enforcement agencies have given up on collecting much of it. They say too many men are simply too poor to pay. Instead, states are looking to cut parents a deal. NPR's Jennifer Ludden looks at one such effort in Baltimore.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: When the state of Maryland wanted to reach dads with child support debt, it started here. The boarded-up blocks of West Baltimore, neighborhoods marked by drugs, violence, unemployment. The state surveyed the area with Joe Jones of the Center for Urban Families.

JOE JONES: Within those zip codes, there are approximately 2,400 men who owe $20 million in back state-owed child support.

LUDDEN: State owed. It means this kind of child support is actually supposed to reimburse taxpayers for welfare paid to the child's mother. But Jones says most who owe it earn less than $10,000 a year.

JONES: So even if we use taxpayer dollars to chase them down and we catch them, right, and we go into their pockets, there's nothing in there.

LUDDEN: Are they deadbeat?

JOSEPH DIPRIMIO: I don't like that expression. I think that's vulgar. I don't use it.

LUDDEN: Joseph DiPrimio heads Maryland's Child Support Enforcement Office. He prefers dead broke.

DIPRIMIO: We're talking about individuals that are economically challenged. They're underemployed. But they want to do the right thing.

LUDDEN: Research shows high child support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless they give up trying to pay it. DiPrimio wanted to make parents an offer. But he needed their trust and that was a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The lead county investigators say they set up a unique sting operation to take down deadbeat moms and dads.

LUDDEN: Stings like this one in Alabama four years ago have happened all over the country including Baltimore. The local Sheriff's office sent fake letters telling parents they'd won free football tickets. Instead, WTVM's Evening News showed them getting arrested.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Take him down. Take him down.

LUDDEN: To break through years of distrust, Maryland sent letters to parents with the logo of the Center for Urban Families. They made this offer. If you take the center's month-long employment training course and land a job we'll forgive 10 percent of your child support debt. Complete a responsible fatherhood program, we'll write off another 15 percent. Response has been slow. In two years, just over 100 parents have signed on, many attending fatherhood meetings like this one.

EDDIE WHITE: We definitely want to start with introductions.

LUDDEN: Two dozen men sit in a large square - 20-something to middle-aged in sweats and in suits. Some complained their exes won't let them see their child if they haven't paid child support. Others don't understand why it doesn't count as support when they take their kids out to eat or buy them clothes. Mostly, like 30-year-old, Lee Ford, they say it is so hard to find work.

LEE FORD: But you are telling me, no matter what, I got to pay. But I can't get a job to work to save my soul.

LUDDEN: Group leader Eddie White cuts no slack.

WHITE: If you know you've got a criminal record, sure it's going to be hard for you to get a job. But it don't mean you can't work.

LUDDEN: A big part of this class is also educational.

WHITE: I'm paying my child support and I get laid off or I lose my job, right? What should happen?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You got to call to the office immediately.

WHITE: There you go. That's the word - immediately.

LUDDEN: Immediately ask the court for an adjustment, White says. The Obama administration has proposed rules to make child support orders more in line with what parents actually earn. They'd also provide more job training. Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says it's a good investment.

RON HASKINS: More fathers will get a job. More fathers will have earnings. And more fathers will use those earnings to pay child support.

LUDDEN: So far that's what has happened in Baltimore. The numbers are small but the amount of child support that's been paid is more than double the amount of debt written off.

WHITE: Right over left, grab the wrist.

LUDDEN: In a ritual end to their meeting, the men gather in a circle, arms entwined.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

LUDDEN: Maryland wants to expand its child support debt forgiveness program, hoping to help more parents pay what they can. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.