“Deadbeat Dads” has been the headliner of multiple stories in the Chicago Sun-Times for decades. Cook County launched “Operation Father’s Pay”; Butler County in Ohio put faces of these so called deadbeats on pizza boxes; and the Los Angeles County District Attorney announced their “Most Wanted Delinquent Parent” list. Several other states have begun similar campaigns to collect on un-paid child support. All of these humiliating campaigns launched against these fathers would have us believe that the men targeted are insensitive deadbeats who are selfishly stiffing their children; however, research contradicts this.
The fact that many of these types of campaigns struggle to come up with alleged “deadbeats” who have an education or a middle-class job might give less zealous public officials cause to stop and pause. Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earn poverty level wages; less than four percent of the national child support debt is owed by those earning $40,000 or more a year. According to the largest federally-funded study of divorced dads ever conducted, unemployment, not willful neglect, is the largest cause of failure to pay child support.
The “Most Wanted Deadbeat Parents” lists that are put out clearly illustrate this problem. Far from being lists of well-heeled businessmen, lawyers, and accountants, the vast majority of the men on these lists do low wage and often seasonal work, and owe large sums of money which they could never hope to pay off. Even a person with a college degree is a rare find on these lists. Nevertheless, the powers that be who create these lists say that the men on the lists are singled out for their “ability to pay”.
Virginia’s “Most Wanted” list was topped by a laborer, a carnival hired hand, and a construction worker. These men collectively somehow owed over a quarter of a million dollars in child support. A plumber topped the Texas “most wanted” list as the highest wage earner. Kentucky’s list sported only one obligor with an education, and the most common designation for occupation was "laborer." Near the top of Arizona’s list was a maintenance man who owed $90,223 and, best of all, a roofer who owed $240,581. One wonders what the financial condition of those who weren’t “singled out” for their ability to pay is.
How did men of such humble means end up owing so much money? The arrearages are likely created in large part because the child support system is often mulishly impervious to the economic realities working people face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, unemployment, and work-related injuries. According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who suffers a substantial drop in income is able to get courts to reduce his or her child support payments.
Some of the fathers on Illinois’ Department of Healthcare and Family Services’
“Wanted” list got there in the following manner — the wife or girlfriend ended the relationship, left with the kids, and then went to the state to get public assistance. Illinois DHFS then went after the father for child support to repay the cost of the assistance. The father -- against whom no wrongdoing has been charged — has likely been deprived of custody of his kids and may not even have any visitation rights, and might not even know where his kids are.
While paying the state, the father also has to hire an attorney and fight his way through the courts just to attempt to see his children. Even if he is awarded visitation rights, recalcitrant mothers often flout these orders with impunity. Low and moderate income fathers frequently must choose between paying for legal action to obtain contact with their children and risk jail time for not paying child support- or paying child support and losing the ability to have contact with their children. These men are hardly “walking away" from their "families and responsibilities."
Sometimes a father in this situation has been paying the teenage children directly because the mother has been using the child support for everything but the children. Nevertheless, the father is saddled with arrearages and declared a “deadbeat.” When he presents his stack of cancelled checks, the state says, “Sorry that money you paid is a gift --- you still owe us child support to reimburse the cost of the public assistance.” It is irrelevant that the money was used by the children to buy food, clothing and the necessities of life.
Even though dads are often the only ones targeted and criticized, according to U.S. Census data, noncustodial mothers are actually 20 percent more likely to default on their child support obligations than noncustodial fathers. This is despite the fact that noncustodial mothers are less likely to be required to pay child support, and those with support obligations are asked to pay a lower percentage of their income in child support than noncustodial fathers.
While each of these “deadbeat” lists undoubtedly has men on them who willfully dodge their responsibility of child support, the larger problem lies not with non-custodial parents, but instead with the child support system. Arresting low-income parents or parading their names and faces in highly publicized media blitzes is neither fair nor useful. What’s needed instead is an overhaul of the system, so that blue-collar workers aren't turned into criminals because they’ve failed to pay obligations which are beyond their reach. David Pisarra is an attorney, columnist and entrepreneur, who operates Pisarra & Grist in Santa Monica, Calif. Click here for his Web site.