Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) has come up with a bill that could revolutionize the American way of divorce by fundamentally changing the child support payment system. She describes her bill as "clean, lean and mean." It is all of that, and perhaps more: it might prevent child support payments and visiting privileges to the noncustodial parent from being used as weapons in bitter divorce fights.
Roukema's proposal would require the states to set up mandatory systems under which child support would be withheld from a person's wages beginning when a court decree ordering payment is issued. Past-due child support would also be withheld from wages, and any fines or collection fees for past-due support would be levied against the deadbeat parent. The states also would be required to institute ways of withholding funds from income other than wages, and to enter into reciprocity agreements with other states so support could be withheld from wages of parents who move out of state.
Wage withholding would not be a last-ditch measure ordered by the courts after months or years of delinquency and court appearances by the parents. Support would be withheld from a person's paycheck before he or she ever sees it, and, under Roukema's bill, sent to the custodial parent through the existing state agencies that track down delinquent parents. "If we institute withholding from the date of the court decree, a lot of the superstructure--both the probation officers and the social workers and the attendant problems that come with garnishment and so forth--is eliminated," says Roukema.
"Why get child support enmeshed in all the ill feelings that are tangential in divorce decrees and make the children the victims?" she says.
Roukema secured administration backing last week for a major policy change in which federal child support collection muscle would be extended to all custodial parents, not just those who end up on welfare. The administration has proposed an ambitious plan to reward states that do a good job of collecting and to punish, by withholding federal funds, those that do not. The administration plan requires mandatory withholding after two months' delinquency. At a congressional hearing last week, Roukema argued against the waiting period.
"Why should the custodial parent wait two months or more before any support is received?" she asked. "Further, by the time the system works, months pass. The bills do not stop coming in, the children still need to eat and be clothed."
Rep. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. (R-S.C.), a member of the House subcommittee that is considering the legislation, says he is concerned about the "stigma" that mandatory withholding might attach to those who are willing to pay. His bill would make wage withholding mandatory only after a two-month delinquency. He also would require the states to notify credit bureaus when people are in arrears and to withhold income tax refunds from delinquent parents. Last year, the federal government collected $166 million from the tax refunds of delinquent parents whose children were on welfare.
Only 35 percent of the 8.4 million women bringing up children with an absent father received any child support payment in 1981, and only 22 percent received full payment, according to the Census Bureau. A recent Department of Education study found that children of absent fathers did poorly in school, in part because of economic deprivation, and it recommended "stricter sanctions against nonpayment of child support."
Child support payments have been, for a great many parents, voluntary, and as the data shows, a great many of them haven't volunteered. Their failure has plunged hundreds of thousands of households into poverty, and prompted a bipartisan congressional drive for reform initiated by Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.), the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, and Senate staffers working on the Economic Equity Act.
Mandatory deduction would go a long way toward reform, whether it begins with the separation decree or the first delinquency. In New York City, where it goes into effect after three delinquencies, it has increased collections by 50 percent.
Withholding child support from wages would place child support in the same category as state and federal taxes and Social Security payments. It is not a voluntary commitment, any more than any of these are.
It's a legal obligation.