Child Support Awareness Month: Why Helping ‘Deadbeat Dads’ Is Part of the Solution


As part of our coverage of Child Support Awareness Month, a piece last week focused on a new Treasury Department rule that illustrates the challenges child support enforcement can pose to impoverished non-custodial parents, most of whom are fathers. This week we highlight small programs throughout the country attempting to address the heart of the matter: improving the financial status of poor fathers.

Enforcement of child support orders has been viewed as part of larger systematic efforts that, as author Barbara Ehrenreich sees it, “rob the poor.” In her May essay for TomDispatch.com, Ehrenreich points out that about half of child support debt is owed to state governments as reimbursement for welfare payments that have already been paid to children. She argues that, just as private lenders prey on the poor, public sector entities view collecting debt from poor fathers as a juicy tactic to raise revenue for the state. A new Treasury Department rule that could deplete the social security and veterans’ benefits of child support debtors is a proof point of Ehrenreich’s thesis.

Tough enforcement is generally accepted because the concept of a “deadbeat dad” is a fiercely negative one, particularly among those who know all too well the tough hand dealt to single mothers. So public programs that attempt to aid child support debtors– the majority of whom are fathers–are not always popular. Consider a program in Spokane, WA where Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP), a nonprofit focused on poverty alleviation, is collaborating with local child support agencies. SNAP offers a range of financial support services for non-custodial fathers who have failed to comply with child support orders.

“We got some bad press for helping deadbeat dads,” said Jordan Tampien, SNAP’s Financial Services Manager. “But in reality what it’s done is create paying customers who now can afford their child support payments.”

So what does it mean to be a deadbeat dad? There are plenty of fathers who do not pay child support because they simply choose not to, leaving their children and their children’s mother in a lurch. And, as Ehrenreich highlights, there are fathers who are unable to comply with child support orders because they are just too poor. People in arrears can face jail time in some states, or they can risk having drivers licenses, passports and professional licenses revoked–consequences that can make it all the more difficult to find employment. Child support debt can also ruin debtors’ credit, making it even harder to pull themselves out of the hole.

Tampien’s fledgling program attempts to aid this population. It’s off to a strong start: In the second year of its three years of federal funding, SNAP’s program has  served almost 170 fathers. Sixty percent of those 170 have elected to take SNAP’s financial education classes. SNAP works directly with child support debtors to modify their child support orders and establish payment plans, and also offers the fathers financial education classes.

This program is part of a small federal effort to figure out long-term solutions for poor child support debtors. Washington is one of seven states that are part of a  pilot program called Building Assets for Fathers and Families (BAFF). The 3-year, $25 million program partners the Department of Health and Human Services’ Asset Finance Initiative (AFI) with child support and enforcement agencies in seven states to identify strategies for increasing financial stability of non-custodial parents.

While BAFF launched in 2010, AFI has been in existence since 1998 and also aids domestic violence survivors, Native American families, refugees and people with disabilities in building their financial futures.

The federal BAFF grant actually precipitated this collaboration between SNAP and child support agencies, but the program is expected to continue even after the federal funding runs out.

BAFF funding supports similar programs in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. In Texas, the Baylor College of Medicine received BAFF funding to provide employment and asset building services to over 100 Houston noncustodial parents. The program will also enroll dozens of noncustodial parents in Individual Development Accounts, complete financial education classes, and help poor fathers purchase assets such as a home, education loan or small business. 

Just like SNAP’s program in Spokane, Baylor’s program will continue even after its federal funding runs out. According to Baylor’s organizers, their program was “designed to become self-sustaining after the end of the federal pilot.”

Ehrenreich and other critics of child support enforcement have shown that the framework for enforcement to date has been heavily weighted toward seizing whatever money a debtor has, causing debtors to perceive enforcement agencies as “police” and leaving them in a tougher financial position. 

SNAP and Baylor’s programs offer a different framework, one in which enforcement agencies can play a supportive and solution-oriented role in debtors’ lives. True, fathers who are not genuinely interested in paying child support and getting out of child support debt are unlikely to engage in these programs. But at the very least, SNAP and Baylor’s efforts are connecting with poor fathers who want to achieve financial independence and, at last, crawl out from under the albatross of child support arrears. “I don’t think we’ve had one client come in who doesn’t want to pay his child support,” said Tampien. “They’ve all wanted to pay.”

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