Maryland might boost child support amounts

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Maryland officials are proposing what would be the first increase in 20 years in the recommended amount for child support payments.

Today's child support levels -- state guidelines that are often followed by family courts -- are based on the economic realities of 1988, when a gallon of gas cost $1.08 and a first-class stamp was 22 cents, officials say. The new proposal, which would mainly affect families with new cases, would bring payments more in line with today's costs.

Parents who already pay child support would continue at present levels, unless one of the parents asks a judge to modify the court order setting the payment amounts. The state estimates that child support affects 500,000 children in Maryland.

"A parent who is raising a child alone has to really scramble to take care of the child," said Brenda Donald, secretary of the Department of Human Resources. "We think this goes to what is fair and what is necessary to make families more stable."

The change -- which requires approval by the legislature -- is long overdue, Donald said. Maryland has the highest per-capita income in the country, but research shows that it falls to 41st in what parents pay for child support, according to state officials.

The proposal is being detailed at regional forums around the state, including one Wednesday night in Charles County.

At a forum last week in Rockville, questions were raised about an exception for lower-income people: For example, one-child families in which the parents earn less than $1,350 a month combined would pay less than they do now.

State officials noted that low-income parents pay a larger portion of their incomes in child support. Low-income families will not experience any slippage in child support, they said, because the change would affect only new cases. It also would not affect families who receive public assistance.

Not everyone was convinced.

"We're reducing at the low end where it's needed the most," said Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D), a Judiciary Committee member who attended the forum and said lower-income parents pay a larger share than others because there is "a base level to support a child."

Jim Welty of Frederick County said the proposal appeared to penalize low-income parents with custody and give "a pat on the back to the noncustodial parents."

"We should be legislating for children, not for parents who have low-paying jobs," Welty said.

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