Poor who owe child support could lose federal benefits

February 26, 2012

Thousands of poor and disabled men stand to lose their only income next year because of a change in government policy that will allow states to seize every dollar of federal benefits from people who owe back child support.

Previously, states could capture only 65 percent of benefits from people who opted to be paid by paper check. Advocates estimate that 275,000 men could be left destitute as a result of the change.

The concern is an unintended consequence of the Treasury Department’s decision to pay all benefits electronically, including Social Security, disability and veterans’ benefits, starting next year.

A separate Treasury Department rule, in place since May in a preliminary form, guarantees states the power to freeze the bank accounts of people who collect federal benefits and owe child support.

By allowing seizure of the remaining 35 percent of benefits, the rules could cause thousands of poor men to lose their only income.

“It’s kind of Orwellian, what’s being set up here for a segment of the population,” said Johnson Tyler, a lawyer who represents poor and disabled people collecting federal benefits. “It’s going to be a nightmare in about a year unless something changes.”

In many cases, the bills are decades old and the children long grown. Much of the money owed is interest and fees that add up when men are unable to pay because they are disabled, institutionalized or imprisoned.

Most of the money will go to governments, not to the children of the men with child support debts, independent analyses show. States are allowed to keep child support money as repayment for welfare previously provided for those children.

In some instances, the grown children are supporting their fathers.

The rule change illustrates how a politically desirable goal such as cracking down on so-called deadbeat dads can have complicated, even counterproductive, effects.

“The rule doesn’t look at the fact that the money is mostly interest, the money is going to the state, the kids are usually adults, and it’s leaving the payer with nothing,” said Ashlee Highland, a legal aid lawyer who works with the poor in Chicago.

Highland said her office has clients in eviction, in foreclosure and unable to pay their bills because of states’ aggressive efforts to collect back child support.

Marcial Herrera, 44, has had his bank account frozen repeatedly since 2009, blocking his access to $800 a month in government benefits. Unable to work because of a severe back injury he suffered in 2000, Herrera fell behind on child support. He owes more than $7,000 — not to his 22-year-old son, but to the state of New York, because his son received welfare years earlier.

Herrera sought help in court and had his son speak on his behalf, but the judge could not erase the thousands he owed.

“I’m just waiting for them to lock me up,” he said. “I don’t see no other way of me repaying that debt.”

A legal aid lawyer suggested that Herrera collect his benefits by paper check. It costs him $15 to cash the check each month, but at least he can be sure that he will have money to pay his bills.

States have had the ability to freeze accounts for years. That’s why people like Herrera rely on paper checks to safeguard part of their income.

Starting in March 2013, that option will disappear. The Treasury Department will deposit federal benefits directly into bank accounts or load them onto prepaid debit cards. Either way, state child support agencies will be able to seize all of it.

Electronic payments are expected to save the government $1 billion over the next 10 years, the Treasury Department said. It costs the government about $1 to mail a check, compared with about 10 cents for an electronic transfer.

The Treasury Department understands that forcing people into direct deposit could deprive them of their income, say officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the rule-writing process.

States can garnish only 65 percent of benefits before the federal government sends them out. But the limit does not apply once the money is in an account and states ask banks to freeze it, according to a Treasury Department memo obtained by the Associated Press.

A Treasury spokesman declined to discuss the policy. The officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they think the policy is legally unavoidable. They described a dilemma: Restrain states trying to collect child-support debts or risk depriving thousands of people of their only income.

Treasury’s legal justification assumes that receiving a paper check is still an option, said Tyler, the Brooklyn lawyer.

Letting state agencies seize the money contradicts the public stance of the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency in charge of child support collections. The department does not want states to collect child support so aggressively that poor people lose their only income, spokesman Ken Wolfe said.

“Child-support enforcement — getting that money and passing it on to parents and children — is a measure to fight poverty, and it doesn’t make sense to accomplish that by impoverishing somebody else,” he said.

Wolfe said HHS is developing guidelines for states to “make sure we’re not putting someone into deep poverty as a result of an automatic collection.” He declined to provide details of those plans.

— Associated Press

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