Was The Child Support Hustle® Designed to Destroy Black Families?

Kenya N. Rahmaan

As the fight for child support reform heats to a boiling point, it is common to hear and see articles and statements suggesting that the child support system was designed to destroy the Black family, and more specifically, the Black man.  Because this statement has resulted in many articles, social media posts, memes and other outlets of communication, it is important to either verify or dispel the validity of this hypothesis.  The number of supporters of The Reform Child Support NOW! Movement grows across the nation and has reached people all around the globe.  Due to this great reach and because child support reform is so desperately needed on a global scale, it is imperative that the information shared nationally and internationally concerning demographics and other statistics be as accurate as possible.  Depending on the state and country, there are mixed demographics, procedures, laws, enforcement practices and they are all affected differently by child support issues and laws.  But for the purposes of this article, the discovery, and if necessary, the exploration of any discriminatory laws and practices will remain in seven states within the borders of the United States.

The seven states chosen for this article were selected because they have the highest reported arrears allegedly owed by non-custodial parents.  Arrears in child support is a term that refers to past due child support owed to a custodial parent, (Anna Assad, 2012).  The federal government has made no secret about the arrears allegedly owed by parents across the country and uses the sky-high amount allegedly owed to encourage the backing of the child support system.  According to a report published by the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) Agency on September 15, 2017 and written by Dennis Putze, as of April 2017, 5.5 million delinquent non-custodial parents, or debtors, owed over $114 billion in past due child support.

Of this $114 billion, the top arrears owed were reported by the following states:

  1. California         $17,471,156,608
  2. Texas                 $15,844,922,985
  3. New York          $7,001,274,537
  4. Michigan          $5,947,072,245
  5. Florida              $5,636,606,603
  6. Ohio                   $4,876,911,477
  7. New Jersey       $3,123,202,161

This data was reported as part of the Federal OCSE Annual report to Congress along with other information, including but not limited to: undistributed child support collections, pass-through payment amounts, state incentive payment history, etc.  When exploring the issue of racism in child support laws, or lack thereof, these states were selected for having the highest arrears owed nationally, having some of the harshest punishments executed on parents who allegedly owe child support debt, and these states have been featured in media outlets regularly due to child support headlines.  These headlines are almost never due to positive or uplifting situations.  But rather, headlines involving mass arrests, prison sentences, and debt amounts that realistically cannot be paid.

California has the highest amount of child support debt and, arguably, has its share of problems but racist child support policies may not be one of those problems.  This home of the glitzy, glamorous, and wealthy celebrities of all races and ethnic backgrounds, the state has gained just as much fame for its anticipated block buster releases as it has for its ugly divorce, custody, and child support cases.  The notoriety of these cases can be attributed to both the superstar status and/or the ridiculous amount of money being sought by the custodial parents during these breakups. Many times, the amount of the monthly child support payments being ordered is more than regular working people could earn in a year.  But, some would argue, that child support laws are written, as a transfer of wealth and not as a financial source to provide basic needs for a child when one parent lives outside of the home.  Because the Golden State has such a diverse population, one could speculate that the celebrity child support cases would be as varied as the couples when dealing with racial makeup of the parents.  And for the rich and famous, this reportedly holds true.

According to Summer Buesing of The Richest (2014), Eddie Murphy was ordered to pay $59,950 per month for child support while Mel Gibson was on the hook for much less at $20,000 per month.  But the $20,000 does not come without other potential income for the mother of their daughter.  Gibson also agreed to pay Oksana Grivorieve $750,000 in installments over five years, (Buesing, 2014).  Both men are paying substantial sums and it would be safe to say that their bank account holdings versus skin color controlled the child support court rulings and monthly payment amounts.  However, for the less rich and the not-so-famous parents, racial discrimination may, at least according to some, play a significant role in child support outcomes.

Since California ranks numero uno in the amount of arrears reported, it is important to identify the connection between the child support and the Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) (formerly known as Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC), and universally known as welfare systems. The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) (2012) accurately reported that child support enforcement agencies were traditionally set up as cost recovery agencies for the state for welfare payments.  Over the decades since Former President Bill Clinton implemented the now infamous (for many reasons) welfare-to-work program, the number of welfare recipients have reduced tremendously.  However, the mandate that welfare recipients ‘assign’ their rights to child support payments over to the state in exchange for welfare benefits is the reason that the child support program was created, and until it is reformed, is the reason that the child support program will remain a welfare recovery program.  Traditionally states were only requiring that custodial parents sue for child support in exchange for cash benefits.

However, in recent years more states, including California, have added other public benefits to the mandate list requiring cooperation with the child support system in exchange for benefits.  In California, the custodial parent must trade his or her right to child support in exchange for receiving cash payments (TANF), Medicaid, State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and child care.  According to the Office of Family Assistance (OFA) (2016), there were a total of 1,020,497 TANF recipients in California.  Of that million plus, the population with the highest TANF enrollment was Hispanic at 61.2%, followed by Whites at 19.2%, and ending with Blacks at 13.9%.

California has one of the highest African-American populations in the country with 2,994,626 (8%) ranking at number five nationally, (United States Census Bureau, 2015). Even though the African-American population has the lowest number of reported families receiving TANF benefits, the punishments executed by child support agencies affect the Black community more often due to the double-digit unemployment rate.  As of 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for African-Americans was 11%.  When comparing that rate with the unemployment rate of Hispanics, ( 7.2%), and Whites, (4.4%), it is inevitable that child support enforcement would affect a person with no income more frequently and more significantly than those gainfully employed.

Moving down South to The Lone Star state, the declaration that ‘Everything is Bigger in Texas’ rings true even with child support arrears.  The arrears cannot be ignored as they have reached a staggering $15,844,922,985 in 2016 while the current amount of child support owed was significantly less at $4,711,945,709, (Administration for Children and Families (ACF), 2016).   Texas’ low-income parents can expect a monthly cash TANF grant of $286 for a family of three (a parent and two children) in exchange for signing over their rights to any future child support payments.  Medicaid enrollment requires cooperation with child support as well.  Texas, along with a handful of other states pass-through or pay a portion of support collected to these vulnerable families, even though many refuse to observe this act.

To be clear, states have the option of allowing some of the child support payment to be passed-through to the parent and child and disregarded when determining TANF assistance, (NCSL, 2017).  Texas is one of 29 states that currently pay part of the child support collected to the approximately 64,822 TANF recipients if support is collected on their alleged behalf.  As of 2016, $75 is the payout amount, (NCSL, 2016).  In comparison to the other states that refuse to pass-through any child support payments, Texas may seem to care, at least $75 worth, for these low-income families.  This does not, however, explain the drastic reduction in pass-through payments in 2016 from $1,699,242 in 2012 to $619,557.  It is safe to say that the missing $1,079,685 could have been better utilized providing for the rightful owners of this money, the children.

Texas is number one in its African-American population with almost four million people calling the state home.   Hispanics, however, have the highest number of people receiving TANF benefits at 60.9% while African-Americans make up 24.4% of those receiving cash public assistance (Office of Family Assistance, 2016).  Even though the White population is the largest of the three ethnicities with almost 14 million residents in 2015, and according the Office of Family Assistance (2016) only 13.6% reportedly received TANF payments.  With all the information shedding light on the demographics of the welfare recipients and the mandate to sue for child support payments in exchange for TANF (and other welfare benefits), unemployment rates are equally as important to the result of what group of people are the most negatively impacted by the arguably unjust and unconstitutional child support system.

The child support system collected approximately $33 billion in 2016 and the primary source of these collections are from income or wage withholding.  According to the BLS (2016), a wage garnishment is any legal or equitable procedure through which some portion of a person’s earnings is required to be withheld for payment of a debt.  In almost all cases, the only way to garnish income is through a paycheck from an employer after child support paperwork has been processed.  Of course, many people work ‘under the table’ to avoid paying federally-owed debt such as taxes, student loans, and child support arrearages.  In FY 2015, ¾ of the $32.4 billion of collections were attributed to income withholding, that is support payments withheld from the non-custodial parent’s paychecks (OCSE, 2016).

As with every state across the nation, the unemployment rate among African-Americans in Texas was the highest at 7.6% in 2016 followed by Hispanics and Whites at 5.1% and 3.6% respectively.  Since Texas is a state that often boasts about having some of the ‘toughest’ punishments against child support debtors, it important to explore those punishments and how the most vulnerable are affected.  For instance, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TX DMV) can deny motor vehicle registration renewals of parents who have gone at least six months without making a child support payment, (The Attorney General of Texas). It is more likely that parents will have difficulty paying their child support due to unemployment, which in turn would prevent him or her from renewing their vehicle registration.  Because more Black Texans are unemployed, these parents are and will continue to be the people affected more often than parents of other races.

Likewise, Texas is a state that regularly conducts mass arrests, often called child support ‘roundups’, against parent who allegedly owe child support arrears.  Since the federal government mandates that all states operate specific computer systems to track and monitor alleged child support debtors (all are complying except for South Carolina), it is a safe to deduction that race is not a factor when vehicle registrations are flagged for of license renewal denial or when child support debt amounts trigger the issuance of arrest warrants.  It would be a more realistic supposition that the computer system extracts names based on the length of time that child support has gone unpaid and the amount of child support that is allegedly owed during a certain time frame.  Again, verifying that the child support system generates documents to approve the hunting and punishing of parents based on their financial, and not ethnic, history and makeup is more plausible versus executing those same actions based on the race, color, or creed.

Ohio, the state that piloted the child support program under Former President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s made the top seven highest arrears in the nation list.  Clinton implemented both it and welfare reform simultaneously and the statistics are interesting.  To start, Ohio ranks number six in the amount of arrears owed by parents (some non-parents) reporting that in 2016 $4,876,911.477 was owed in comparison to $1,871,657,010 in current payments owed, (ACF, 2016).   Ohio mandates that custodial parents sue for the monthly TANF benefit of $474 (for a family of three) and food stamps.  According to Paula Roberts (2000), states are allowed, but not required to, impose a child support cooperation requirement on both custodial and non-custodial parents who receive food stamps.  Currently, only five states, Michigan and Florida included, force custodial parents to sue in exchange for food vouchers.  This can be viewed as an additional hurdle that families can and will face if the parent refuses to participate with child support enforcement. Ultimately, children, (supposedly the most important people named in the entire child support situation), could possibly starve because of this mandate.

Of the participants of TANF-only benefits, White custodial parents lead in enrollments making up 52.34% of the total 107,062 reported people, (ACF, 2016).  African-Americans and Hispanics trail behind at 39.3% and 5.6% respectively.  Again, enforcement is triggered when parents become delinquent and African-American parents fare no better when it comes to employment opportunities in Ohio.  In 2015, the unemployment rate for Black Ohioans was 10.8% even though the African-American population ranked #11 in the nation at 14%, (Black Demographics).  With unemployment in double digits, it is inevitable that African-Americans would be the population mostly affected by child support enforcement and punishments.

The birth rate for unmarried parents plays a pivotal role in the participation rate in the child support system by the non-traditional family.  The history of the child support system can be traced to Washington D.C. in 1950 when Congress amended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) law by requiring state welfare agencies to notify law enforcement officials when benefits were being furnished to a child who has been abandoned by one of her parents, (The House Ways and Means Committee, 2012).  Fast forward to 2018, the child support program in its core has not shifted.  The difference is that instead of being reported to law-enforcement when a parent ‘abandons’ a child, he or she need only be unmarried to the custodial parent.   A revamp to the agency in the 1970s made amendments to include a new demographic of children.  Most of these children, according to The Ways and Means Committee (2012), needed aid because their parents were separated, divorced, or never married.

Due to this population being the most targeted, single parent homes became those most in contact with child support enforcement.  Even though White families led in the number of families receiving TANF in Ohio, the difference in birth rates between those families and Black and Hispanic families was quite significant.  According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) (2016), there were 109,566 births to Black mothers, 25,078 to White mothers, and 6,974 births to Hispanic mothers.  The difference between birth rates of Black mothers and mothers of other races can explain why it seems that Black non-custodial parents are targeted by child support enforcement.

Since unwed parents are the target market for the child support system, the marriage rate must be considered in determining if racial bias does exist within the child support system.  The CDC (2015) reported that Ohio had an overall marriage rate of 5.9%.  When compared to other states, that number sheds some light on why there is such an outcry of racial disparities within the child support system from Black parents.  According to R. Kelly Raley, Megan M. Sweeny, and Daniel Wandre (2015), all Black Americans display lower marriage rates than do other racial ethnic groups.  Because of the lower marriage rates, more single custodial parents (predominately mothers) may find the need to apply for public assistance.  Likewise, divorce rates for Black women of all ages are higher than women of other races.  Again, divorces often result in one parent gaining full custody of the child and, therefore, child support obligations are required to be paid by the father (in most cases).

According to a report published by the Pew Research Center (2017), Black men are twice as likely as Black women to have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity (24% vs. 12%).  Because of this fact, children with Black fathers from divorced and never married relationships have mothers who are also Black.  Interestingly, research shows that Black adolescent girls who go to predominantly white schools are less likely to be involved in romantic relationships, (Raley, et. al., 2015).  Factors such as these undoubtedly contribute to who is more affected by child support laws and punished by child support enforcement.  Again, since these single parent homes are statistically headed by Black women, it goes to reason that their ex-partners, Black men, would seem unfairly targeted by the child support system.

The reality is that unwed parents and children born out-of-wedlock to Black parents is the reason for the financial success and longevity of the child support enforcement.  Again, this due to a high unemployment rate of almost 11% among other disparities plaguing the African-American communities in Ohio and across the nation. These socioeconomically driven factors cause the disparities in the Black community and not the guidelines and policies specifically.  Every person with their name in the child support system faces the same punishments when they become late on payments.  Skin color is likely not considered when these punishments are executed against delinquent parents.

Traveling to New Jersey, this state ranks number seven in the amount of child support arrears as it reports that non-custodial parents owed $3,123,202,161 in 2016.  While the unemployment rate in the African-American community is the highest (of course) when compared to other races and the population outnumbers the other demographics regarding receiving TANF benefits, the biggest factor affecting parents of color in the Orange State is the prison crisis.   The 6,506,870 reported White New Jersey residents greatly outnumbered the 1.4 million Black New Jersey residents in 2016, (US Census, 2017).  Even with this tremendous gap between White and Black residents calling New Jersey home, the total is opposite is true for the prison population.

According to Shaundra Selvaggi of the Atlanta Black Star (2016), African Americans make up 15% of the state population but 60% of the prisoners.  It is critical when discussing mass incarceration and how it affects child support payments, more importantly child support debt, to identify if there are any predetermined racially discriminatory guidelines.  According to Rutgers University (2014), one in 28 children has a parent behind bars and 1 in 9 African-American children (11.4%) children had a parent incarcerated.  This number is extremely high and equally disturbing when compared to incarcerated parents of other races.  One in 28 Hispanic children (3.5%) and one in 57 White children (1.8%) have an incarcerated parent, (Rutgers University, 2016).    It can be traumatic for any child to be raised with an absent parent, regardless if the absence is caused by parental alienation perpetrated by the custodial parent or from incarceration.   Clearly more African-American children are faced with this trauma in New Jersey.

It is not uncommon for these incarcerated parents to already be indebted to the child support system prior to being arrested and sentenced for any significant amount of time.  Unsurprisingly, research shows that incarcerated non-custodial parents regularly enter prison with child support obligations and arrears without any realistic ability to pay the debt.  Often prisoners must rely on outside resources to obtain funds to purchase extra items he/she may need during their prison stint.  Wendy Sawyer of the Prison Policy Initiative (2017) wrote that a prisoner can earn between a low average of $.14 and a high average of $.63 per hour nationally.  Even if he/she spent 24 hours and seven days of week working, the pay by basic standards, is barely survivable. The following chart details total amounts that would be earned if an incarcerated parent worked nonstop:

Average Prisoner Pay 0.14 Per Hour $ .63 Per Hour
Per Day $3.36 $15.12
Per Week $23.52 $105.84
Per Month $94.08 $423.36
Per Year $1,128.96 $5,080.32

Based on these calculations and if the incarcerated parent worked 24/7, he or she could earn from between $1,128.96 and $5,080.32 annually.  This ‘salary’ could only be earned if he/she were permitted to work a paying job instead of being assigned tasks to be completed for free as part of their prison sentence.  According to OCSE (2012), the average incarcerated parent with a child support case has $10,000 in arrears when entering state prison and leaves with $20,000 in arrears.  For any person depending on a minimum wage pay check, $20,000 in debt can be devastating, but couple owing that amount of debt with factors such a felony conviction, unemployment, and racial discrimination, that debt turns into a lifetime ball and chain tightly secured around the neck of the non-custodial parent.

Focusing on New Jersey and the amount of child support debt that an incarcerated parent will surely owe upon release prison, African-American fathers are the most affected by child support laws.  For instance, as of January 3, 2017, there were 19,619 total offenders in New Jersey Correctional Institutions of which 61% were black, (Office of Policy and Planning, 2017).  This number is disproportionate and certainly contributes to the mystique of the child support system being purposely designed to target Black men.  As child support enforcement rules and guidelines punish alleged ‘deadbeats’ for failing to pay child support, prisoners, most of them being Black fathers, are hit the hardest because of the incarceration rates for those fathers of color.  African-Americans in the Northeastern state are locked up at a rate of 12 times that of Whites, (Selvaggi, 2016).

Four states follow close behind New Jersey with its egregiously high incarceration rate.  African-Americans are locked at a rate 10 times that of Whites in Iowa, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wisconsin, (Selvaggi, 2016).  This means that the arrears for African-American non-custodial parents will be much greater in these states as well due to child support laws that previously recognized incarceration as ‘voluntary’ incarceration.  This law allowed child support officials to refuse downward child support modifications which would have decreased the child support order amounts during incarceration thus decreasing the amount of child support the parent owed upon release.  What is more devastating is that the pattern of racial disparity is almost guaranteed to repeat in New Jersey by spilling over onto the youth who are, more than likely, the children named on those same child support orders.

The youth camps reported 12,835 total offenders in 2017.  Of these nearly 13,000 prisoners, 60% were Black, while 22% were White, and 17% were Hispanic, (Office of Policy and Planning, 2017).  Likewise, there were huge disparities in county jails, halfway houses, recovery programs, and re-entry programs especially pertaining to Black and Hispanic offenders reported at 2,013 and 338 respectively.  Even though education and awareness could be a great benefit to these young people, there are no known courses being taught to high schoolers about the risks associated with children born out-of-wedlock and child support involvement.  Education could prevent future child support debtors and eliminating accumulating child support arrears during incarceration.  And more importantly, possibly avoiding incarceration entirely.

There has been a new bill passed by Governor Chris Christie that will supposedly help tackle the disparities that the African-American population face regarding prison sentences in New Jersey.  Under the new system, judges are encouraged to consider a detainee’s threat of danger to the community, instead of the flight risk when setting the bail amounts, (Selvaggi, 2016).  This may assist when releasing prisoners once arrested but does nothing to end the unconstitutional and illegal child support ‘round ups’ perpetrated by New Jersey law enforcement officers on a regular basis.

Although many cities across the nation participate in these mass raids which result in numerous arrests of child support debtors, New Jersey is particularly notorious in the number of raids law enforcement executes across the state.  New Jersey does not hearings to determine: the financial status of the parents, if he or she can afford to pay the child support debt/payments, or if there are there ever any reports of due process hearings being held.  These clear violations affect all with child support cases but specifically Black men as they, again, have the highest unemployment rate in New Jersey at 6.8%, (BLS, 2017).

According to Raley, et.al. (2015), Black men have more trouble transitioning into stable full-time employment.  Gaining full-time employment will only become more difficult with an arrest record and once again, the child support system becomes a bullet aimed at the of the Black father’s back.  When considering these factors and the fact that Black families accumulate less wealth than White families, child support will certainly affect the African-American population at a greater rate, and the results can and have been more devastating to the community.  There are many issues that affect the outcomes of the execution of the child support system.

Every state is responsible for drafting and implementing its own child support laws and guidelines.  However, the federal government is the ultimate overseer and enforcer of the system.  Having said that, discriminatory practices are strictly prohibited from any government agency and this is or should be universal across the nation and in all government facilities.  Non-discriminatory practices should be practiced in all government offices whether the agencies operate at a local, state, or federal level.  With this being the law of the land, race and ethnicity should never be considered when child support orders are being either initiated or enforced. This is the law, but the law is not always followed by the officials.

To be clear, having these statistical findings and other information does not mean that the system is designed to destroy the Black family or more specifically the Black man.  The system was initially designed to force a husband and father who had abandoned his family to provide for his family since women traditionally did not earn an income outside of the home.  It was then ‘reformed’ to recover welfare costs awarded (remember welfare benefits are grants not loans) to unwed low-income mothers.  Socioeconomic factors such as high unemployment, over-policing, over-sentencing, workforce discrimination, etc. contributed greatly to the African American community being targets of child support enforcement and punishments.  The stark reality is that the only color that matters is the color of money green.  If the extortion, excuse me, child support, is paid, there is seemingly nothing for the non-custodial parent to worry about regarding punishments no matter his or her race, color, or creed.

Soaring unemployment rates, over-policing, over-sentencing, elevated rates of babies being born out-of-wedlock to low-income African-American parents are factors that elevate the risk of interaction with child support enforcement.  This means that the rules and guidelines are more significant triggers when dealing with child support in the Black community.  Unmarried, low-income, mothers-of-color need to be aware that when applying for TANF, Medicaid, and or SCHIP, short of ‘good cause’ they will be mandated to sue the other parent for child support.  Other benefits may require that same mandate as well, so it is important to read before signing any documentations concerning welfare benefits or child support enforcement.

Likewise, unmarried fathers (and mothers) should always provide for their children. When providing, receipts should be kept in the event that a child support complaint is filed.  Without proper documentation validating that financial support has been provided, a judge can and will deem any money spent or items purchased as gifts.  Just as importantly, the over criminalization of Black men in America is significant when considering child support orders and more importantly, child support debt.  More than half of the prison population are parents and are unmarried to the mother of their child(ren).

Even in states having higher White and Hispanic birth rates and TANF recipients, unemployment rates are still the highest among the Black community.  This means that without proper education and awareness, low-income, poverty-stricken homes, impoverished communities will be destined to continue and likely increase the number of people on the child support roles in the future.  As the fight to reform the unconstitutional child support system continues, it is important to recognize that people from all walks of life are affected.  From the rich and famous to the poor and homeless, the strong arm of the law seems to have no boundaries when punishing parents over child support issues.  As outlined in this article, the system does not discriminate.  Individuals hired to execute the policies of the program can and do discriminate. There are many other factors that contribute to the African-American community being disproportionately affected by the child support system.  The only color that matters to the government is the color of the almighty dollar.


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