As of this weekend, the state’s 610,000 noncustodial parents who have fallen behind on their child support payments will have some extra breathing room. A new amnesty policy gives delinquent parents a more flexible timetable to come into compliance, saving many from criminal and civil enforcement penalties. Historically, similar programs have been effective in recovering otherwise nonexistent support dollars, and in theory, this new policy has its merits. But the plan suffers logistically, placing too taxing a demand on a demographic already grappling with poverty. The state should harness the spirit of the amnesty proposal and restructure it to reflect a more reasonable understanding of its constraints.
According to The Ann Arbor News, delinquent parents owe more than $8.5 billion is owed to Michigan children in child support. These aren’t tax dollars; the money goes directly to the children who need it most. For some low-income parents, a monthly child support check keeps food on the table. Because these payments are so vital, any efforts to recover this money – such as this amnesty offer – are always welcome.
Yet the new payment scheme would give parents merely three months to come up with their past-due support money. The average delinquent parent in the state of Michigan owes about $14,000 in support money. The Detroit News reports that 80 percent of those owing child support are at or below the poverty level, and 75 percent of black parents owing child support earn less than $10,000 a year. Considering these statistics, it is not reasonable to expect parents at such low income levels to scrounge up thousands of dollars in less than 90 days.
The state bases payment requirements on a percentage of the noncustodial parent’s wage; if the parent is injured or laid off, no adjustments are made, and the parent is left on his own to come up with the payment. The result is a system that too often punishes parents whose child support requirements outstrip their annual incomes.
This is not to say the system is without its abusers – there are plenty. Failing to comply out of negligence is certainly a crime worth punishing, and finding a policy that is stern toward detractors yet encourages payment is a difficult task. But too much emphasis on punishment is dangerous. Throwing a delinquent parent in jail only hurts the child by making support payments that much less likely to arrive.
Similar programs have been enacted around the country, and the state should remodel its amnesty plan around those that have proven the most successful. A two-week amnesty program including Maryland, two counties in Virginia and Washington, D.C. was rewarding, collecting close to $600,000 in unpaid support. According to The Detroit News, the program did not require full payment of past-due support and gained more participation by extending the hours at local offices and keeping some open on weekends.
If the state is to effectively tackle its child support crisis, laudable intentions should match reasonable public policy. Too rigid a payment scheme risks inflaming the problem, placing undue pressure on already struggling parents. A more level-headed system would complement punitive threats with a practical timetable for payment – one that heeds the dire financial circumstances of those on both sides of a child support check.