HEALTH AND HUMAN Services Secretary Margaret Heckler can take major credit for selling the administration on a proposal that should command strong support not only from women's issue lobbies but from everyone who worries about the future of the nation's children. In testimony before a Senate Finance subcommittee last week, Mrs. Heckler outlined an administration plan to strengthen government action against fathers who fail to pay court-ordered child support.
As Mrs. Heckler testified, she has had ample opportunity as a congresswoman and as a lawyer to see the hardship caused by the widespread neglect of child support obligations by fathers rich and poor. Fewer than one out of four of 8.4 million families with absent fathers receive regular child support payments. Total delinquencies in court-ordered payments last year came to an astounding $4 billion.
Until Mrs. Heckler--with strong help from Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole--prevailed, the administration planned to reduce sharply federal money for state enforcement efforts and to concentrate those efforts almost entirely on collections for welfare families. These collections have produced welfare savings in a few active states but they do nothing at all for the families involved, since they simply offset the meager stipends to which they were otherwise entitled. And state efforts have largely ignored the millions of families that are scraping by on their own slender resources with no chance for assistance other than the cumbersome and costly mechanism of regular court action.
The revised plan would correct that situation by providing equal motivation for states to pursue welfare and non-welfare cases and by substantially increasing the incentives for sharper state performance. It would also require states to adopt such proven techniques as making deductions from the wages and tax refunds of delinquent payers and to streamline the hearing of child support complaints. This last improvement should also address the contention of some fathers that their delinquency is prompted by their former wives' refusal to allow them to see their children. Such a complaint justifies attention, though not at the expense of denying adequate support to the children caught up in post-marital bitterness.
Mrs. Heckler's plan needs more adequate funding for state enforcement efforts. But that relatively small budget deficiency can be fixed by Ways and Means and Finance Committee members, many of whom have a long and active interest in this area. With strong administration support, the bill could become law in this session. It would mark a long overdue governmental acknowledgment that a parent's denial of responsibility for the upbringing of children is, in Mrs. Heckler's words, "a cowardly act."