In 1995, President Clinton anointed the month of August National Child Support Awareness Month. This was not just lip service: child support enforcement played a major role in Clinton’s welfare reform agenda. The Clinton administration gave local agencies authority to garnish wages and suspend driver’s licenses and passports of parents who failed to pay child support.
Nearly two decades later, August is still recognized as Child Support Awareness Month by many states, and a parent in child support arrears can still be denied his drivers license, professional license, and passport. Debtors can also face prison time. These enforcement provisions have been criticized for being especially tough on the many child support debtors who are poor: 70 percent of child support debtors earn less than $10,000 per year.
A new Treasury Department rule issued last year demonstrates that the hard line on poor child support debtors isn’t changing. The rule allows creditors to seize direct-deposit Social Security and Veterans benefits payments from poor individuals who owe child support payments.
The Treasury rule brings to light the tension between helping single mothers support their children while also ensuring poor debtors are not rendered economically helpless. Make no mistake: child support enforcement is critical for single mothers. Mothers make up five out of six custodial parents. Non-custodial parents’ failure to pay child support leaves these mothers in a lurch. Some 42 percent of all custodial parents live at or below the poverty level. Only 42 percent of custodial mothers received all of the child support they were due in 2009 and nearly 30 percent did not receive any of the child support they were due. The budget for child support enforcement has actually dropped since the Bush administration’s Deficit Reduction Act, something many women’s groups have advocated against.
But is draining the public benefits of poor child support debtors a fair solution? This Treasury rule came about because, as of March 2013, Social Security benefits and Veterans benefits will be deposited electronically into beneficiaries’ accounts. To protect these benefits from creditors, the rule requires banks to tag electronic government payments, and banks must protect two months worth of tagged deposits. However, if a recipient of these public benefits is also a child support debtor, the rule requires no tagging of such a recipient’s public benefits — meaning child support enforcement agencies can completely wipe out a child support debtor’s bank account. SSI and Veterans benefits are each a maximum of $700 per month.
Advocates at the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and several dozens of poverty organizations are working to remove this exception from the Treasury Department’s rule. In their letter to Treasury Commissioner Michael Astrue, NCLC pointed out that because of the rule’s exception, creditors would be able to completely deplete social security and veterans’ benefits of those who are in child support arrears.
The New York Times offered an editorial against the exception, pointing out that “much of this child support debt arose because support obligations were not revised when the debtor became disabled, unemployed or incarcerated.”
“You can’t just impoverish these guys,” said Pat Kaplan, Executive Director of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, a group that has been involved in advocating against the Treasury rule. “Because then you have a whole new community of impoverished people.”
It is still unclear whether the exception will be left out of the final regulations, but NCLC, Kaplan and many others are still working to make sure it does.
Aside from the Treasury rule, it is time to re-frame child support enforcement as it affects the very poor. There are already some faintly progressive shifts in this regard in terms of due process rights of debtors as well as long-term strategies for improving debtors’ financial situations. In 2011 the Supreme Court dealt a backhanded boon to debtors in Turner v. Rogers , holding that a parent in child support arrears does not have automatic right to an attorney, even if he faces jail. The Sixth Amendment right to an attorney applies only in criminal matters, and child support matters are deemed civil in nature. However, Turner also holds that the debtor can avoid jail if he can demonstrate his inability to pay, and actually requires procedures to ensure the debtor knows he can reveal his financial situation. This is a new twist on Sixth Amendment jurisprudence that was offered by the Obama administration’s amicus brief, and the Court adopted it.
In addition, seven states are part of a federal pilot program called Building Assets for Fathers and Families (BAFF). The three-year, $25 million program partners the Department of Health and Human Services’ Asset Finance Initiative (AFI) with child support and enforcement agencies to identify strategies for increasing financial stability of non-custodial parents. BAFF is intended to be an empowering program for poor parents who owe child support. The program is new and is slated to end next year; next week I will be writing a piece specifically about how this program is taking shape in a couple of these states and what we can learn from their experiences.
Finally, protecting the reproductive autonomy of all people, regardless of class, is essential to this debate. Mothers and fathers who are unable to access contraception or abortion services to control the number and spacing of their subsequent children are more likely to face economic challenges throughout their lives, and are then more likely to pass those challenges along to their children. Health reform gives us reason to be optimistic in this regard.
As Child Support Awareness Month winds down and campaign silly season heats up, we should press policymakers to think creatively about how child support enforcement can treat the poorest parents fairly, while also ensuring single mothers have the resources they and their children need.