Does Child Support Need an Update?
Blogging the Beltway: New federal programs seek to make the enforcement system work for entire families.
(The Root) -- Timed for Father's Day weekend, on Friday the White House Domestic Policy Council issued a new report detailing the Obama administration's various initiatives to encourage fatherhood and healthy families.
"One out of every three children in America -- over 24 million in total -- lives in a home without their biological father present," reads the introduction to the report, entitled Promoting Responsible Fatherhood (pdf), which continues to say that many noncustodial dads who try to do the right thing are challenged by unemployment and underemployment. "Data show that low-income men from communities of color are significantly more likely to be nonresident fathers than resident fathers."
Among the continuing efforts touted in the report are Health and Human Services Department grants for community organizations that provide services such as parenting classes, financial or child-support management and healthy-relationships education; as well as the Justice Department-led Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which reaches fathers leaving the criminal justice system to help them reconnect to their families and enter the workforce.
Also tucked inside the report are two policy announcements around the child-support system. This year the administration will issue state waivers that link unemployed, noncustodial parents (usually fathers) to work-oriented services such as job-training and job-search assistance.
Instead of using federal dollars to prosecute unemployed fathers who can't afford their monthly child-support orders, the waivers will let state child-support-enforcement offices reallocate their federal funds toward services that better address the financial barriers that often keep these dads from meeting their obligations.
In addition, HHS recently announced that it will award more than $10 million in competitive grants for states to otherwise implement employment services for low-income noncustodial parents.
"There are guys who don't have the economic means, for various reasons, to pay, and for a lot of low-income dads it becomes insurmountable debt," Joseph T. Jones, the president and founder of the Center for Urban Families, told The Root. "Then the child-support system expends resources to incarcerate them, compounding the issue because even while the father's in jail, the debt continues to accrue."
Rather than stay on that route, the waiver program will let participating states connect low-income fathers to employment services to get them on track. Twenty-nine states, including Maryland and Texas, already operate statewide or local work-oriented programs for noncustodial parents in the child-support system.
"What is anecdotally known is that when you have programs like this, it allows the state to begin to collect child support from a population of guys who they've typically had difficulty collecting from," said Jones. "It's not like they're not getting any money. They're actually getting more now from these dads than they were able to previously."
Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, is encouraged by the federal strategy to move away from just strict enforcement and more toward a case-management approach.
"Being a good father is not just based on economics. Good fathers provide, and that's important, but they also nurture and they guide," Warren told The Root. "Any initiatives that seek to expand the scope of what it means to be a good father are positive ones. Because when you frame these things from the perspective of kids, they need a father's presence just as much as they need presents."
Meanwhile, Jones realizes that, thanks to "deadbeat dad" generalizations that loom over most conversations about child-support enforcement, the waiver program may be poorly received by some. "It's difficult for many in the general public to understand the rationale for these kinds of programs, but we want 'dead-broke dads' engaged in child support in a way where they're able to pay under a more fair and balanced policy," he said. "What we don't want to see is more guys going to prison over child support when we can have them engaged in work activity and involved in the lives of their children."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.