Who would think someone in prison can still pay? One would hope common sense would prevail, but it should not be surprising that common sense isn’t at all that common in several states’ governments within the US.

Today, 14 states do not allow prisoners to request a modification of their child support obligations while incarcerated. In these states, they fall into a category of voluntary unemployment (or “voluntary impoverishment”), based on the logic that these inmates voluntarily committed the crimes that led to prison. Prison results in their unemployment. There’s no flaw in that argument, except that inmates earn only pennies per day.

The other 36 states allow incarcerated individuals to request a modification to their child support order. In some cases, it’s even suspended altogether while the individual is incarcerated. Each state has a different process. And the prisoner must first be aware they can have it modified. Then he must take all the necessary steps through the bureaucracy to make it happen.

Their obligation continues during the modification request process.

Still…Incarcerated? That’s their problem!

On the surface, having a limited concern over the child support induced debt buildup for those who can’t follow the law may make sense. However, when you look at the numbers, it really is shocking.

Because the child support system is broken, these men leave prison $20,000 in debt, with no job, and almost zero prospects. Incarceration is supposed to be the punishment. When the time is served, the punishment is over and the crime behind them. These fathers are trying to get back into society and rejoin the workforce.  Where does that debt leave them? Look at the numbers:

  • Minimum wage monthly income at 40 hrs a week (before taxes): $1,200
  • Child support payment including arrears (5 yr loan, 6%): $387
  • Remaining: $813

To pay down their debt, they have to lose >30% of their income. After that hit, they still have to pay their current child support obligation. One can quickly see how they have no hope of meeting their living needs, paying off their debt, and meeting current child support obligations!

Factor in court-ordered wage garnishments of up to 65% to meet child support obligations (not counting your debt) and you can see how hopeless the spiral becomes. After the garnishment, they’ll likely have their driver’s license suspended, reducing their access to resources to get to work. After that, bank accounts get frozen

With all these obstacles, it is easy to see why most guys give up and never pay again. Eventually, they back away from their children.

So what? How does that affect a law abider like me?

It affects you by perpetuating the poverty of these children in our country. Government assistance for single parents was reduced in the 1990’s to shift the emphasis and responsibility onto the child support system and the non-custodial parent.

While it makes sense on the surface, but fathers in prison can’t pay child support. 

Multiple studies have proven again and again that there’s a huge benefit to children from having both parents involved in their lives. The only solutions available to newly released dads are either taking on additional jobs or returning to their old criminal activities. Additional work greatly reduces the time they can spend with their children can create problems for the kids later when they are adults. Returning to crime clearly is not the solution, but studies show it is what’s most probable.

There is the third option which almost guarantees they will fall behind in current obligations, further exacerbating the struggles of the children.

If they can’t pay, who will?

There’s only one pot of money for these struggling families: State or federal support, so back to tax payer. As a tax payer, you are funding a huge government agency tasked with enforcing child support obligations. But at the same time you, like it or not, are also funding support to these families anyway.

This is the very support we were supposed to reduce or eliminate through child support enforcement. Instead, we just created another government agency that only increases the total cost of tending to the original issue.

There are new programs being developed and pursued by many states that recognize the problem with the current approach. These states are forgiving debt, offering employment assistance to the dads coming out of prison, and training for both parents to assist them in navigating the current job market. Maryland, as an example, offers a staggered debt forgiveness program. The actual amounts forgiven are calculated based on a series courses and training designed to help dads in these situations find and retain work. The results of are impressive and should be mirrored by the rest of the nation.

The Child Support System Is Broken-1How much of the unpaid child support is this?

Incarcerated people fall into the category of those with no reported income up to $10,000 per year. A 2007 study by the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that about 25% of the no-wage earners in this category were incarcerated. No-wage earners account for 40% of the unpaid obligation debt in this country.

To put real numbers to the problem, there are 2.2 million people incarcerated this year. Half are parents, and a little over 1 out of 5 has a child support obligation, or 440,000 people. The zero wage earners account for around $40 billion of the total unpaid obligation!

Do we really think we are going to solve the poverty problem by leaning on that group to somehow come up with money they not only don’t have but are purposefully kept away from earning? What does it take to get the limited government resources shifted to groups that can actually help bring these dads back into working society and become active participants and fathers for their children?

It seems clear that when you hear the news media lament about how the total amount of unpaid child support in our country exceeds $100 billion that we could solve many of our poverty level, single-parent household woes by going after the deadbeats!

But what if the news media revealed the details behind the numbers and exposed the truth about how the bulk of this debt resides on the shoulders of American fathers who, themselves, exist below poverty standards?

In this three-part series, I’ll reveal the whole story to show the reality of life for these so-called “deadbeat” dads and how the child support system is broken on many levels that continue to exacerbate the financial problems of not just single-parented children, but also the support-paying parent as well.

Why Does this Matter?

There are three main reasons why we all need to be concerned about the state of children living in single parented households below the poverty level:

  • This is the United States, a beacon of hope and prosperity in the world. The fact that statistics continue to rise in the wrong direction clearly identifies a problem. Here is an area where we are failing this group within our population. It’s a slight on our founding beliefs and a stain on our reputation throughout the world.
  • Like it or not, the support and sustainment of these kids hits your wallet through welfare, school reduced lunches provided by local taxes, and the wide array of other programs in your area to help them.
  • Their plight is pinned on the non-payment of child support which taints the opinions of lawmakers and enforcement agencies nationwide towards ALL child support payers, even those of us that always meet our obligations.

With single-parent child poverty on the rise, child support became the main focus to ensure the other parent assisted in paying for the children’s well-being. Over $24 billion dollars is collected and distributed annually in child support. Even with this large amount paid, the total unpaid obligations are estimated in excess of $100 billion.

The gap in child support obligations versus collections led to the Child Support Recovery Act in 1992, and then it’s emotionally labeled amendment in 1998, the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act (I’m not making that name up). The goal of these laws was to increase the likelihood of payment to reduce the drain on the welfare system.

The country was fed up with deadbeat parents and with having to pay for their kids through welfare. Emphasis was heavily placed on awarding child support in divorces and paternity cases, and laws were passed with strict punishments, including jail, for parents who didn’t keep up.

Decades later, we look back and wonder if these laws worked? No, the trend is still bad for these kids. The statistics for single-parent raised children are eye-opening. Almost 4 out of 10 children are born to unwed mothers, with a total of 17.4 million children raised without a father. Half of those children live below the poverty line.

If you aren’t especially saddened by the fact that this occurs in the US, and that isn’t enough to concern you, then the impact on your wallet, based on the second and third points I mentioned above, should.

Who gets impacted?

Everyone feels the pain to support children living below the poverty level through their taxes. For those who pay child support, the majority are the dads. Just over 82% of custodial parents are the mothers.

The child support-paying dads fall into one of three categories:

  • Sustainable wage earners
  • Poor
  • Incarcerated

With these being the three categories of child support paying dads, they are also the three categories of deadbeats. Those in jail, not surprisingly, have a difficult time making their payments.

The Bottom Line

As my father, and many like him, always said, “You do the crime, you pay the time.” Piling worthless, uncollectable debt on prisoners for back-due child support, though, almost goes against the cruel and unusual punishment stance our Constitution outlaws very clearly. As this series progresses, you’ll see the vast majority of the remaining portion of the unpaid child support debt falls into a similar, uncollectable category of parents. It’s time to recognize the flaws and that the current child support system is broken. Once we do that, we can head back to the drawing board and come up with real solutions to help these kids.

Think our child support system is broken? Where do your stand on the matter? Let us know in the comments!

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