Kenya N. Rahmaan
There are endless news reports concerning ‘deadbeat’ roundups and proposals of stricter child support legislation in an effort to increase child support collections. There is, however, a lack of information and articles that promote the limited number of work-oriented programs that are being offered to noncustodial parents across the country. While most states only offer one or two programs for noncustodial parents, others offer multiple programs in several counties across the state. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures or NCSL (2014), as of February 2014, 30 states and the District of Columbia are operating 77 work-oriented child support programs. This is an extremely low number of programs considering that there are 15,588,775 total open child support cases nationwide and most child support debt is held by parents with low or no income.
For those unemployed parents, these job programs are critical in helping to remove barriers that hinder them from finding and maintaining long-term employment. Not to mention, having employment for these individuals can literally mean the difference between freedom and imprisonment. If the child support system is in operation to truly benefit the children, there needs to be more work-oriented programs for the parents so that they may provide steady and reliable payments. Child support programs have been proven an effective vehicle for programs that assist noncustodial parents in overcoming barriers to economic stability (NCSL, 2014). It is then a wonder why states with hundreds of thousands (two with over a million) child support cases, do not offer more work-oriented programs for those struggling noncustodial parents.
The state with the most programs offered to parents is New York with a reported 12 programs. Since the state has an open caseload of 920,000, such programs are not only necessary but critical to parents that have been sued for child support. Two of the programs are funded by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Federal State Employment Tax (FSET) funds while other programs are funded by the individual counties. The Department of Labor or DOL offered a program which provided unemployed noncustodial parents with transitional job placements, case management, and other support services (Office of Child Support, 2014). With the country still recovering from the recession, accompanied with other factors which prohibit parents from finding and keeping employment, programs such as these need to be offered on a continuous basis.
Unfortunately for parents in Onondaga County New York, the DOL grant ended on December 31, 2014. There was no mention of the grant being funded in 2015, but considering that a New York parent could face up to four years in prison for a nonsupport conviction, these work-oriented programs should always be funded and available for unemployed, low-income parents. Michigan is a state that proudly posts its arrests of parents that fall behind on child support payments, failing to mention that it offers five work-oriented child support programs for struggling parents. The programs rely on a variety of funding sources including a grant from the Federal Office Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), however, the grant expired in September of last year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), Michigan reported one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 6.7% as of November 2014.
This unemployment number should mean that the number of programs offered will increase from five to an amount needed to satisfy the demand of unemployed parents that are actively seeking work. It is unfortunate that Michigan, along with all other states, criminalize parents for being low-income and being unable to afford outrageous amounts of child support debt. Because of this factor, the four remaining programs offered in Michigan are only offered after the court system has become involved with the case. For example, Charlevoix County provides a case manager to assist the parent with managing their case. According to OSCE (2014), a Friend of the Court (FOC) staff member provides intensive case management, individualized child support services, assessments, job search assistance, and referrals to unemployed noncustodial parents who are court-ordered to seek work.
These fundamental services should be made available to all of the parents included in the nearly one million open cases in Michigan, if employment services are requested by the parent. It is absurd to offer such a valuable helping hand to parents only after they have been jailed and the court has ordered participation in a jobs program. Early access to these programs could prevent parents from being sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of refusing to support their children, thus, saving the taxpayers money that is spent to house a prisoner. Preventative maintenance is key to the reduction of arrears and the improvement of collection rates as gainful employment can be achieved through these programs.
Florida has an open child support caseload of 854,923 as of May 2014, but only offers one work-oriented child support program for its unemployed noncustodial parents. In Duval and Nassau Counties in Jacksonville, there were only 282 noncustodial parents served by a program funded by the federal child support enforcement agency in 2013. The OSCE (2014), reported that the child support program in the Jacksonville area works with several employment agencies to find jobs for unemployed noncustodial parents. There are no reports announcing the success of the, but a parent does not have to be court ordered in order to receive employment assistance.
Even when considering the declining unemployment rate at a reported 5.8% in November, 2014, noncustodial parents still need assistance when seeking employment. This, especially since the punishment for failing to provide for dependents is a felony in Florida and can result in up to five years in prison. Even though jailing a person for owing a debt is illegal in the United States, people should be able to rely on help when it relates to securing a job so that they can avoid prison. The states with the largest number of open child support cases, California and Texas, also fall short in providing significant assistance for parents when faced with roadblocks to gainful employment.
California reports 1,209,703 open child support cases yet only offers six work-oriented child support programs. With one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 7.2%, one would think that the number of programs offered would increase since, statistically, most working parents pay child support. The programs offered are funded by different sources and some are maintained by the courts. There is no specific data provided that specifies success and failure rates, however, it is known that these programs are a necessity in child support enforcement.
Although, child support enforcement is, arguably, unconstitutional, the government should offer some type of relief for low-income parents as a form of fairness in the unjust pursuit for the collection of money. Demanding money from people that struggle to provide basic living needs and jailing those that fail to meet those obligations is akin to cruel and unusual punishment. Offering work-oriented programs does not justify the punishments executed against delinquent parents, but it can offer a shelter, of sorts, from critics of the child support program as a whole. As long as it can be said that something is offered to the poor, it can hardly be said that what is offered is not enough.
Texas fares no better when allegedly offering employment assistance for their unemployed parents. Currently Texas has one program which is funded by TANF and Incentive funds to help parents in 31 counties throughout the state. According to OSCE (2014), NCP Choices provides enhanced child support and compliance monitoring and employment services for noncustodial parents who are unemployed or underemployed and are not compliant with their child support obligations. There are over approximately 1,500,000 open child support cases in Texas, but the program only served a little over 3500 parents in 2013, (OSCE, 2014).
The number of parents with access to the program is just as ridiculous as almost every other aspect of the child support system as it relates to low-income people. To claim that a lack of funds prohibits the government from providing more employment assistance to vulnerable parents would not be a viable excuse when examining the money collected and retained by child support enforcement. According to The Administration of Children & Families or ACF (2014). Texas reported $18,533 939 in 2013 in undistributed child support collections and a total of $88,239,793 for the past five years. This is money that the state adds to future budgets that would be better utilized funding programs that assist parents in finding employment.
Texas also reported its state and federal shares of child support collections at $17,767,696 and $16,025,140 respectively in 2013, (ACF, 2014). This is money that could be diverted from costs associated with posting pictures of delinquent parents, ‘deadbeat’ roundups, and housing prisoners to job programs for the less fortunate parents that are constantly being funneled through the family court system due to nonpayment of child support. It is, and should be acknowledged again, that incarcerating people for owing a debt is an actual crime and the targets are low-income and poor people. Child support debt continues to balloon because of double digit interest rates, fines, and penalties associated with late child support payments and, yet, there are very few programs available to meet the demands of unemployed parents.
The cold hard truth is that the government, county, state, and federal, care nothing about the welfare of low-income children or families. If the government did care, the children would be the true beneficiaries of all money collected on their behalf, instead of what the government allows to trickle-down to the families. The work-oriented child support programs seems more of an afterthought designed to pacify the opposition when questions are asked and the country becomes unsettled over the treatment of parents trapped in the child support system. The noncustodial parents must be provided the means to pay support once the judgment has been rendered or face a lifetime of debt and a revolving prison door.
Again, I say that the child support system in America is unfair, at least, and unconstitutional, at best, and needs desperately to be reformed. Offering punishments with no means of defense is worse than sentencing a person to prison with legal representation. Unfortunately, both situations apply to low-income parents as they are consumed by the child support agencies and court systems, not to mention the debt that they are supposed to repay with little to no money. Something must change before all parents are victims of modern day slavery by way of the child support system.
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2014, June 20). Work-Oriented child support programs. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/work-oriented-child-support-programs.aspx
The Administration of Children & Families. (2014, April 1). FY2013 Preliminary report – Table P-16 | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/fy2013-preliminary-report-table-p-16
Office of the Child Support Enforcement. (2014, February). Work-Oriented programs for noncustodial parents | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/work-oriented-programs-for-noncustodial-parents-with-active-child-support
The Administration for Children & Families. (2014, April 1). FY2013 Preliminary report – Table P-14 | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/fy2013-preliminary-report-table-p-14
The Administration of Children & Families. (2014, April 1). FY2013 Preliminary report – Table P-15 | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/fy2013-preliminary-report-table-p-15
United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2014, November). Unemployment rates for States. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm