Child support obligations shouldn’t be a life sentence
There’s a link between child support debt, outsourced collections, and Baltimore’s undercover economy. Let’s write it off like bad bank debt, and end this vicious cycle.
Today, in just five West Baltimore zip-codes, there is more than $37M in child support arrears that will never be collected, much of it accrued during a period of incarceration. The hidden cost of this – that it prevents young men’s participation in the formal labor force, actively perpetuates the drug trade, and hurts kids more than anyone else – is rarely discussed.
How? Think about it: 65% of your already meager wages are garnished. In low-income families, these dollars don’t go to the custodial parent – they go to the state. This means that if you make $10/hour, you have $3.50 left to feed and clothe your kids, and at minimum pay your own housing, food and transportation expenses. Your bank assets are seized, you can’t have a drivers or a professional license, and your tax returns are intercepted. Your options of legitimate employment narrow quickly.
This makes no sense. We can do a lot better. In fact, we think there is a simple solution: treat child support arrearages like bad national bank debt. Reduce its value and write it off the state balance sheet.
In Maryland, the Child Support Payment Incentive Program is already taking small steps to chip away at this mountain of bad debt. The program allows low-income, noncustodial parents who have made two years of consecutive child support payments to have their arrears reduced to zero. And this year, thanks to the work of the Job Opportunities Task Force, the state will automatically suspend child support orders for low-income parents sentenced to at least a year and a half.
The reasoning is simple: writing off child support arrearages based on income gives the “dead-broke” dad a break on past obligations, without eliminating current support and without removing the mechanisms that hold “dead-beat” dads accountable.
Programs like this must be expanded and strengthened. Allowing for flexibility when the father’s income decreases or disappears would ensure that men don’t get hopelessly behind. If that happens, everybody – the custodial parent, the state, and especially the kids – loses.