Analysis Law and Policy

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

Sheila Bapat

A few small public programs throughout the country are helping poor fathers who are interested in achieving financial independence and, at last, crawling out from under the albatross of child support arrears.

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, 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.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

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.”

Analysis Race

Debt Enforcement Policy Harms Employment Prospects for the Poor

Sheila Bapat

Along with the enactment of welfare reform 17 years ago this August came tougher practices in debt enforcement—which, in many cases, lands the poor behind bars, leads to suspensions in drivers' licenses, and other practices that make finding work much harder.

The purported objective of Clinton-era welfare reform was to end poor people’s dependence on government benefits and encourage them to find work. But along with the enactment of welfare reform 17 years ago this August came tougher practices in debt enforcement—which in many cases lands the poor behind bars, leads to suspensions in drivers’ licenses, and other practices that make finding work much harder. The Clinton administration gave state and local agencies authority to engage in these practices, and while the focus of the administration was forcing parents to pay outstanding child support debt, these practices have become more commonplace in the United States for many types of debt, or legal financial obligations (LFOs).

States have seized on the authority the Clinton administration offered them, and enforcement practices in debt collection have become much harsher throughout the country, even though many who owe money are very poor. At the same time, some programs that are trying to aid poor parents in meeting their child support and other financial obligations are actually losing their federal funding. These trends reveal an unfortunate debt enforcement landscape that exacerbates current employment challenges the poor and people of color face today.

In Michigan, for example, the poor are routinely fined, arraigned, and jailed for money that they owe—such as child support arrears, fees associated with traffic violations, drug offenses, or other offenses. Michigan’s practices, akin to modern-day debtors’ prisons, have been deemed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups as particularly problematic—though they are consistent with the tone and policies set forth by the Clinton administration.

The ACLU and other advocates in Michigan are now suing to ensure that poor people with such debt do not end up in prison. Aside from the fact that imprisoning poor people for their debt is unconstitutional, part of the advocates’ argument is the troubling ramifications of such policies on debtors’ long-term employment and ability to support themselves and their families over the long term. In the case Michigan v. Bailey, plaintiff Joseph Bailey had long struggled to find work to help pay off court-ordered restitution for $14,000 he stole from a Michigan energy company, according to his attorney, Valerie Newman. (Notably, the energy company has not gone after Bailey for this money, only the local courts have chosen to enforce the judgment.) As soon as he finally found a well-paying position, he was thrown in jail.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

According to an amicus brief from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University:

Mr. Bailey was sent to prison just as he had finally acquired a well-paying job. In one fell swoop, the court deprived Mr. Bailey of gainful employment and the ability to make restitution while returning him to the taxpayers’ care. … When he was sentenced to prison, Mr. Bailey was forced to leave his employment, thereby ensuring that he would not have the ability to make payments.

“Being in prison for your debt makes it impossible to get a job and move on with your life,” said Newman, who also is an assistant defender with the Michigan State Appellate Defender’s Office. “This case is a travesty, this is such a stark example of someone who was on probation, never committed another criminal act, all he had hanging over him was the money he owed, but the judge said he had no choice but to put him in jail.”

The ACLU has documented other poor individuals whose LFOs have harmed their job prospects. In a 2010 report, In for a Penny, the ACLU chronicles workers who have been locked up due to arrears. As one worker, Reuben, noted:

You know, they give us this opportunity with a release date, you know to start a whole new chapter, with your debt to society, as far as serving time, but a lot of people get scared. For one, the economy is going bad. Two, they can’t, they know they don’t have no job lined up for them because they got their first of all, their [criminal] history. And a lot of them don’t have the work background like myself. I’ve been locked up since I’ve been sixteen. So, I definitely have the record against me and the experience. So, you have a lot of people like myself getting out, you know with debts that are more than $6000, somewhere up to the 10s, 100s, and 50 thousands, and it’s very prevalent on their minds that they will fail if they cannot find a job. And so a lot of them be stressing.

Instead of strengthening families and aiding children, policies of debt enforcement are in some cases generating poverty traps. At the same time, some programs that aim to help poor parents with arrears get back on their feet are deemed experimental and are not continuing to receive federal funding. One program in Spokane, Washington, led by the nonprofit Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP), has spent the last two years collaborating with local child support agencies to help non-custodial parents pay off debts, find jobs, and become independent enough to support their children.

Last year, Rewire reported on the first year of SNAP’s program. But the two-year federal grant that funds SNAP’s program runs out next month, and it is unlikely that the funding will be renewed—though SNAP is trying to sustain at least parts of the program.

Terry Villalovoz, financial counselor with SNAP, says many of the 300 non-custodial parents served in the past two years have had serious problems with finding jobs if they’ve lost their drivers’ licenses or faced prison time.

“We’ve had clients who lost their licenses or been incarcerated and they can’t get jobs as a result,” Villalovoz told Rewire. “Also some jobs require that workers have a car, but if they don’t have a license they can’t do those jobs. Employers often don’t want to deal with someone with these issues.”

The debt enforcement landscape, juxtaposed with Villalovoz’s program, reveals that not enough is being done to aid those who are trapped in debt to actually realize the self-sufficiency welfare reform claimed to prize.

“Many child support departments scare my clients, and tell my clients things like, ‘I’m taking half your money or you’re going to jail!’” Villalovoz said. “But that practice just doesn’t work for people who are struggling. Instead, being an advocate for people is important.”

Analysis Law and Policy

Child Support Awareness Month: Time to Advocate for a New Enforcement Framework for Impoverished Fathers

Sheila Bapat

A new Treasury Department rule  brings to light the tension between helping single mothers support their children while also ensuring poor debtors are not rendered economically helpless by enforcement provisions.

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.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

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.