The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How our child support system can push the poor deeper into poverty

Punishing deadbeat parents is supposed to help families -- but it can have the opposite effect.

In the United States, nearly one in four children are due some sort of child support. But only 62 percent of the money owed is actually paid. To get a sense of who these deadbeat parents are, consider this chart comparing different states:

This chart suggests that, generally, the poorer the state, the lower the rates at which that state is able to collect child support. The relationship between poverty and the child support collection rate hints at one of the biggest weaknesses of the American child support system: Often, the parent ordered to pay child support just can’t afford to. And so the debt piles up. This amounts to a particularly painful problem for the poorest families, who are the most in need of child support and the least likely to get it.

In 2011, 27 percent of the parents who were supposed to get child support lived below the poverty line. Of those, only 40 percent received full payment, while 27 percent received nothing at all. These are families who could really use the money. On average, poor parents who get child support rely on it for more than half of their annual income. If they are on welfare, though, parents are generally required to hand over the rights to their child support, which is used to pay the state back. This leads to a situation in which the other parent is writing child support checks, but the children see little to no additional money. The parent with the children can even be fined if he or she does not help locate the other parent.

And what about the parents who are not paying up? They are mostly poor, too. A study from 2004 noted that people making less than $10,000 a year, or with no reported income, accounted for 70 percent of the total child support debt owed, or $49 billion of the $70 billion owed nationwide. These parents seem unlikely to ever pay off their obligations, which, with interest and penalties, only grow over time.

By fiscal year 2013, national child support debt had grown to $116 billionThe overhanging debt spawns obstacles for those trying to find work: Their cars might get slapped with a lien, or they might get jailed for nonpayment. Not working or being incarcerated means accumulating more debt — and so on. 

Recognizing this problem, some states have experimented with debt forgiveness as an incentive to pay child support. For instance, a parent might be told that his or her child support debt will be significantly reduced if he or she starts making on-time payments from now on. One experiment in Wisconsin showed generally positive results: Parents mustered more money when they were told that their past debt would be reduced by 50 cents or more for every dollar in child support they paid going forward. Child support is intended to improve the lives of children whose parents are separated. But among the poor these obligations can be unrealistic — and instead of helping children, the system might only be driving one parent even deeper into poverty.