Between a Rock and a Hard Place

September 2000 / Abell Reports / Health and Human Services, Workforce Development

Low-income noncustodial parents, child support, and counterproductive public policies.

Gregg, a 43-year-old African American, is struggling to build a life of self-sufficiency and responsible parenthood. After 20 years of drug addiction, he has been sober for the last 38 months. In August of 1997, he graduated from Baltimore’s Christopher Place Employment Academy where he learned to read and acquired job readiness skills. In June 1997, Gregg began working for the Baltimore City Sanitation Department for $6.43 an hour. Since then, he has received two promotions and now earns $10.97 an hour.

Gregg is the father of twin girls and a boy. He is actively involved in the lives of his children and supports them financially. Of his weekly earnings of $319.57, Gregg pays $191.87 in child support. Monthly, he pays $767.48 in child support, leaving him $510.80 to live on. Gregg manages to get by because he resides in Christopher Place Community House, subsidized community housing. Without this alternative, Gregg would probably become homeless and unemployed, as he was for many years, and be unable to provide any kind of support – emotional or financial – to his children.

In addition to the weekly child support payments he currently makes, Gregg owes $32,000 in child support arrearages, which accumulated during his 20 years of active drug addiction.

Gregg’s situation illustrates the dysfunctional and punitive effects of our current child support system as it functions for low-income noncustodial parents. No one would question the obligation for noncustodial parents (NCPs) to provide financial support for their children. And, certainly, the needs of low-income children are abundantly clear.

Nonetheless, one must question a child support system that buries low-income NCPs with a burden of debt they cannot possibly discharge, that defeats any hope they may have for financial stability and self-sufficiency, and ultimately, drives many low-income NCPs out of the formal job market and into the underground economy. The State needs to ask itself whether its approach to these parents is doing more harm than good. Is it punishing these low-income fathers in a way that is actually hurting their children?

In a recent paper, Improving Child Well-Being By Focusing on Low-income Noncustodial Parents in Maryland, published by The Abell Foundation, Wendell Primus and Kristina Daugirdas examined the failings of the current child support system. In its place, they propose a less punitive system that would result in greater financial and emotional support for low-income children and offer low-income NCPs a better shot at a life of dignity and self-sufficiency.