2015: The 40th Anniversary of the Title IV-D Program – Let’s Party Like It’s 1975!
I started my career in child support about 27 years ago, as a child support officer I, in the Seattle field office. At that time, we were by and large a recoupment agency, recovering child support on behalf of the state and federal governments for AFDC expenditures. The vast majority of my customers were married women in the process of divorcing their husbands. I do remember paternity tests – blood tests at the time – but they didn’t figure into the majority of our cases. Instead, I was establishing temporary support orders that would eventually be folded into divorce decrees.
At the time, we set our proposed orders at the AFDC grant amount. Mom and two kids? Dad would be expected to pay the equivalent of a 3-person AFDC grant as monthly child support – or argue why he shouldn’t. And if he failed to respond, the default order was set at that AFDC grant level – regardless of his ability to pay.
Fast forward to 2015. I don’t need to belabor the fact that the child support program has gotten more sophisticated – and more complex – responding to advances in technology, societal trends, and the complex families we now serve. Frankly, I can’t imagine starting a child support calculation with the TANF grant amount. At the same time, given the recent precipitous economic downturn, the slow recovery, and the growing underground economy, it’s hard to know where to start. Throw in complex households, and there are simply no simple answers anymore.
What we do know is that for about 80% of the families we serve, our existing tools work, and work well. For people connected to the regular economy, we can easily obtain income and asset information sufficient to establish support orders in line with a parent’s ability to pay without resorting to imputing income. And 80% is something we should be proud of and celebrate. We do good work!
It’s the other 20%, however, that makes our work more challenging: the dads who have been in and out of the criminal justice system, or live in the underground economy; the moms who have had children with two or more men; the adults with substance abuse issues, or with less than a high school diploma; and the children who have cycled in and out of foster care. For these 20%, our business-as-usual tools just aren’t working.
It’s time for the child support program to have a large, serious, and important conversation about what our role is with regard to the 20%. I believe child support professionals are concerned about parental responsibility and making sure kids get the support they need. But we also “get it” in terms of that 20%. Few still see our role as punitive – the conversation has by and large switched from punishment to helping struggling parents move to the “paying” column. No one wants to jail a parent who is unable to pay his or her support. We know that a parent in jail can’t support his or her kids. We know that people with criminal records face an uphill battle when looking for work, especially in a tough economy. We know that most employers require prospective employees to have a driver’s license and a fairly clean credit report. We also know, however, that we are required to have systems that suspend licenses and report to credit bureaus automatically, to support efficient and timely case processing. We also know that for that 20% of the parents in our caseload, a suspended license or bad credit report aren’t the only things keeping them from joining the above-ground economy, and being able to financially and emotionally support their kids.
So yes, we get it. And because we do, it’s time for us to figure out what to do about it. We’ve enjoyed bipartisan support for our program largely because our message has been easy to understand: All parents should support their kids. And we are extremely cost effective in helping that happen. We’ve figured out the 80% – and we need to continue to do an excellent job for those families. Our message – along with our federal laws, policies, systems, and incentive structure – may need to change when we start talking seriously about the 20%. These families need a lot of help, and it’s time to figure out what role we should play in helping struggling parents.