In what appears to be a bizarre reversal on his overall tendencies president Barack Obama has put forth legislation that would, at least on its surface, appear to make draconian child support laws more equitable for men. Years and years of Obama’s anti male rhetoric and indeed his policies have made me take everything the man says with a grain of salt to say the least. We all remember his infamous fathers day speech in which men were framed as chronic irresponsible deadbeats, and single mothers the heroic innocents that selflessly carry the next generation of America on their backs. If you haven’t watched it already you can view it here.
Needless to say, this is some of the most gynocentric pandering of any president in history, and it is responsible for the decision I have made to never support any politician that talks like this, ever. They will not have my vote, they will not have a single donation, from my pocket…ever. Given this you could imagine my surprise when I read an article titled For men in prison, child support becomes a crushing debt, the article starts by telling us about a father who was caught up in the prison system;
FERGUSON, MO. —Earl L. Harris did not owe child support when he was sent to prison in 1997 for selling marijuana. He now concedes that dealing drugs may have been a stupid move for a new father.
But Harris, then 19, had grown up poor and dropped out of school, and the only legitimate work available to young, black men like him, he says, was a temp job without benefits.
“Nobody was hiring,” he said. “I got into hustling because I wanted to support my baby.”
The state of Missouri sent Harris to the penitentiary in Boonville, 250 miles from his home and baby daughter. His girlfriend moved on, later marrying someone else. After just two months in prison, Harris started getting the letters.
Child support. You owe: $168.
They came once a month, piling up debt.
Child support. You owe: $168. Arrears: $336. Arrears: $504. Arrears: $672. Plus interest and other fees.
Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, about half are parents, and at least 1 in 5 has a child support obligation. For most, the debt will keep piling up throughout their imprisonment: By law or by practice, child support agencies in much of the country consider incarceration a form of “voluntary impoverishment.” Parents like Harris, the logic goes, have only themselves to blame for not earning a living.
So in summary a man convicted of non violently selling Marijauna, a drug that is essentially harmless, in order to provide for his children can be thrown in jail, and deemed to be engaging in “voluntary impoverishment”, isn’t that ironic considering that there exist countless single mothers who voluntarily use children to claim benefits from the government, and thus the taxpayer, citing that they are living in a state of poverty and cannot afford to take care of their progeny. Single mothers are rewarded for not providing for their children, and single fathers are arrested for non violently attempting to provide for their children. But it appears an attempt is being made to rectify this, the article continues;
But that may be about to change. The Obama administration has authorized a new set of regulations that would reclassify incarceration as “involuntary,” giving parents the right to push the pause button on child support payments. The regulations are set to be published early next year and implemented by states by 2017.
Congressional Republicans oppose the new policy. They argue that it would undercut the 1996 welfare reform act, which pressed states to locate missing fathers and bill them for child support so taxpayers wouldn’t bear the full burden of their children’s welfare.
“I am fundamentally opposed to policies that allow parents to abdicate their responsibilities, which, in turn, results in more families having to go on welfare,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said in a speech in June on the Senate floor. Obama’s new regulations, he said, “would undermine a key feature of welfare reform, which is that single mothers can avoid welfare if fathers comply with child-support orders.”
Frances Pardus-Abbadessa, head of child support enforcement for New York City, said: “The complaint we often hear is, ‘Why should incarcerated fathers, of all people, be the ones to get a break from their obligations — and at a cost to the taxpayer?’ ”
Administration officials and their supporters counter that billing fathers while they’re in prison does little but dig them deeper into debt.
“Billing poor fathers doesn’t help poor mothers and kids become less poor,” said Jacquelyn Boggess, a poverty expert with the Center for Family Policy and Practice.
“All it creates,” she said, “is a highly indebted individual.”
I have taken the liberty of finding Senator Orrin Hatch’s full speech he gave on the senate floor regarding this issue and I will repost it in full here (emphasis mine):
Mr. President, I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about another matter of great importance.
Last year, after the mid-term elections, the Obama Administration – quietly and without much fan-fare – proposed a massive, far-reaching rule that would overturn a number of bedrock principles of child support enforcement and welfare reform. Chief among them being the principle that parents should be financially responsible for their children.
This was just the latest attempt on the part of the Obama Administration to bypass Congress in order to enact policies through executive fiat. And, sadly, it wasn’t even the first time this administration has tried to gut welfare reform. Indeed, we all remember a few years back when the administration granted itself the unprecedented authority to waive critical welfare work requirements.
Put simply, this latest rule would make it easier for non-custodial parents to evade paying child support. It would undermine a key feature of welfare reform, which is that single mothers can avoid welfare if fathers comply with child support orders.
I am fundamentally opposed to policies that allow parents to abdicate their responsibilities, which, in turn, results in more families having to go on welfare. I think most Americans would agree with me.
That is why I, joined by Senator Cornyn and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, have introduced legislation that would prevent the Obama Administration from bypassing Congress in yet another attempt to subvert key features of welfare reform.
I regret that we must take this action.
In the past, members of Congress have generally been able to find common ground and work on a bipartisan basis to address issues relating to child support. In fact, Congress recently passed, and the President recently signed, legislation that made improvements to child support enforcement policies.
In 2013, the Senate Finance Committee reported a series of ambitious proposals related to child support enforcement. At that time, we requested input on these proposals from the Obama Administration. At no time did administration officials indicate that the Department of Health and Human Services was quietly working to advance a massive overhaul of child support enforcement, much less that it was planning on doing so without the help or input of Congress.
It’s important to note that this secretive preparation only came to light AFTER the recent elections. That suggests to me that the administration does not have faith that its proposal can withstand public scrutiny and that they have no interest in making a full and transparent justification for the policies they are trying to ram through.
Truth be told, Chairman Ryan and I have introduced our legislation more out of sorrow than anger.
For many months our offices attempted to work out an equitable arrangement with the Obama Administration. We tried to convince HHS to withdraw the problematic features of the rule and in exchange, we would agree to engage in a substantive, productive discussion on how to move forward with improvements to child support enforcement.
I firmly believe that there is room for common ground. In fact, there are a number of features of the administration’s proposed rule that could generate bipartisan support.
But any workable solution would have to include the full participation and ultimate consent of the Legislative Branch. Any changes to the law would have to go through Congress and not simply be dictated by the administration.
So, Mr. President, Chairman Ryan and I will do all we can to get our bill through Congress and present it to the President. If we’re successful, I hope he will sign it and commit to working with us in the future to advance reforms to child support enforcement.
I stand ready to work with the administration and any of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol to achieve this goal.
So in essence the state doesn’t want to pick up the tab for the single mothers they award custody to the vast majority of the time, they want men to do that, men that are targeted by their ridiculous drug war which, as the above article demonstrates, is not above punishing men for selling a drug that is already legal in some states for recreational use. Also we should notice that these are Republicans opposing this for any of us still holding on to the belief that the right wing is in any way a friend to men, it is not. It is more than willing to use the heavy hand of government in order to incarcerate men into a state of “voluntary impoverishment” and then hold them accountable for the child support they were supposed to have paid in the interim while earning a measly 20¢ an hour.
For Earl Harris, the problem was keeping up. He had a job in prison, cleaning the kitchen, but it paid only $7.50 a month — well short of the $168 the state of Missouri was billing him.
“Didn’t they know I was in prison?” he asks. “Weren’t they the ones that put me in there?”
When he got out in 2001, the unpaid amount was listed on his credit report — and pursued by an agency with the power to garnish 65 percent of his wages, intercept his tax returns, freeze his bank account, suspend his driver’s license and, if he failed to pay, lock him up again.
There is no other way to say it, this is predatory economic discrimination against men, it is the resurrection of debt prisons and a form of economic warfare designed to keep vulnerable, predominantly black and hispanic men disenfranchised (although it is certainly capable of destroying impoverished white men as well).
Harris entered barbering school but soon returned to drug dealing and was thrown back into prison for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, his child-support debt swelled to more than $25,000.
Harris’s plight is not unusual. The Marshall Project interviewed nearly three dozen noncustodial parents in 10 states; they all left prison owing between $10,000 and $110,000 in child support. Mostly fathers who are disproportionately black and poor, these parents faced prosecution for not repaying the debt, even after their children were grown.
And what they were able to pay did not necessarily go to their children or the mother. The state often kept their money as repayment for welfare, child care or Medicaid benefits that had been provided to the family while the dad was locked up.
To address the issue, the Obama administration began drafting new rules about four years ago. As currently written, the rules would forbid state child support agencies from classifying incarceration as “voluntary,” granting parents the legal right to a reduction in payments while they’re in prison, a right that does not exist in 14 states.
The rules would require agencies to inform incarcerated parents of this right and would encourage agencies to provide a reduction in payments automatically. And they would urge states to transfer all payments directly to custodial parents — mostly mothers — and their children.
Now I have to admit, coupled with a law requiring mothers to show receipts that the fathers money is in fact spent on essentials for the child, this could actually bring about some positive change in the child support system for men. Yes it’s Obama, Yes I don’t trust it, I don’t trust him, but should these regulations not at the very least be explored? Has tossing men in jail for some neocon drug war and then billing them for the child support when they get out helped to fix things? of course not. The republicans mentioned, Paul Ryan (now the speaker of the house) and Orrin Hatch (the senior republican in the senate) are not some obscure no-names of the GOP, they certainly have pull and weight among their party, certainly they can use their positions to help men in these situations, yet they choose not to, citing that it it is a burden on the government to do so, funny that they can magically conjure up the funds to for example, send money to Israel…or to continue paying the astronomical expense that the war on drugs is costing the tax payer…then they can find the money. The article goes on further;
The administration proposal would provide about $35 million over the next five years to modernize the child support system and to provide job training, job placement, bus fare, and other services to fathers facing prosecution for nonpayment.
The rule “will make sure that arrears don’t accumulate endlessly while a parent is incarcerated,” said Vicki Turetsky, President Obama’s commissioner of child support enforcement. “Our goal is to collect, month by month, for kids. We can do that when parents are employed, not in debt.”
Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have introduced legislation to block the new rules, though neither lawmaker has pushed to advance the measure.
Ron Haskins, a child support expert at the Brookings Institution, said he and other conservatives actually support parts of the new regulations. But they worry, he said, that the policy “could begin a long process of undermining the child support concept, which they strongly believe in.”
Stuck in debt
Back in North St. Louis, Earl Harris, now 38, has put in his hours as an apprentice barber and is one written test away from getting his license. In the meantime, he is living in a halfway house and working at a factory across the river in Illinois, packaging Febreze canisters and Swiffer mops.
His hours are 4 p.m. to midnight, though he arrives an hour early to make sure he doesn’t lose his spot to another temp worker waiting outside the building in hopes of getting a shift. After work, he typically gets a cousin to drive him back to his dorm room, where he sleeps from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. before heading to his daily support group for fathers.
By 8 a.m. the dads are circled up, talking about having kids and debt. They have come because the program helps them find a job, develop strategies for handling their arrears and work on their parenting skills. They also get free legal help. Many of them were incarcerated, almost exclusively for selling drugs, and everyone is wearing a jacket and tie, the uniform of employment.
One father, Louis Moore, said his debt soared to almost $60,000 while he was inside. Allan Newcomer’s is more than $68,000.
“Everybody in the penitentiaries was getting the letters,” Newcomer said.
Lisl Williams, a former judge who now works with the fathers, said even if they spend their money on food, clothes or toys for their children, it does not reduce their debt. In many cases, she said, the whole family — the mother, aunts, uncles, cousins — chips in to help pay it, and then the money they pay goes to the government as repayment for welfare they received long ago.
Because the fathers don’t have large incomes to garnish, bank accounts to tap or property to seize, she adds, they are more likely to face re-incarceration for not paying their arrears.
Corey Mason in St. Louis. (Whitney Curtis/For The Washington Post)
Another dad, Corey Mason, said he was incarcerated and already racking up child support debt when he got a notice saying he might have another child by a different mother. He was instructed to go to the medical wing, get a DNA swab and send it to the agency. When they confirmed his paternity, he started getting a new set of child support bills.
Mason sent several handwritten letters to the agency explaining that he was in prison. He said he never got a response.
Now that he’s out, Mason has a job at the Marriott hotel downtown. He works the graveyard shift, cleaning, shutting down the bar, providing towels to customers who ask for extra. Because the child support agency garnishes well over half his weekly paycheck, he turned down a recent promotion.
“I want to grow in the company. But I don’t want to work that much harder if they’re just going to take all of it to pay for history,” Mason said.
“I know I’m the bad man. But I’m working harder now than I ever have, and it’s like this is designed to keep me behind, backed up against the wall, in debt for the rest of my life.”
Clearly this man wants to work, he doesn’t want a handout, and if he didn’t have to worry about ass-backward child support laws he would likely show the initiative to move up in his position, child support laws actually work as a disincentive to men like this, and frankly I cant say that I blame him one bit. A few more choice bits;
Some fathers interviewed for this story had multiple children — one man said he had 12 — by different mothers. Many seemed less than eager to find employment. A few served time for domestic violence.
Some mothers say these men do not deserve to be freed of their debt.
“There’s a real tension here, as a matter of public policy,” said Joan Entmacher, an expert on family poverty at the National Women’s Law Center. “There are absolutely fathers who evade their responsibilities, saying, ‘Oh, I can’t pay that,’ and not even trying. We don’t want to simply reward that attitude.”
Even if a father is a deadbeat, however, the evidence is clear: Noncustodial fathers are far more likely to pay child support, and otherwise reengage with their families, if payments are manageable.
In a 2012 study by the Center for Policy Research, a private nonprofit research organization, fathers paid a much higher percentage of their monthly obligations when offered relief from unpayable state-owed debt. In studies in Maryland, Illinois and California, fewer than 15 percent remained noncompliant once the old debts were reduced and they were given a schedule of regular payments. And the fathers most likely to abide by “debt compromise” agreements were those who had been incarcerated.
Boggess, the child support analyst, said that trying to collect the accumulated debt is “like squeezing an empty bottle and hoping something comes out.
“These fathers are poor, period. Their arrears are uncollectible, period,” she said. “They’ve never even met anyone who had $30,000.”
When these fathers get out of prison, they often don’t notice the debt until the state begins pursuing it, “which forces them to go underground instead of rejoining the formal economy,” said Turetsky, Obama’s commissioner of child support enforcement.
Indeed, research shows that the two most important factors in a former prisoner’s successful reentry into the community are employment and positive relationships with family. Both of these are hindered by the aggressive pursuit of child support arrears: Garnishing 65 percent of a father’s paycheck, so he is tempted to earn cash off the books; suspending his driver’s license so he can’t get to work; sending him bills that are so far beyond his capacity to pay that he keeps his distance from his family.
“I see it all the time,” Twiggs said: “Not reengaging with the family. Noncompliance with parole and child support. Under-the-table efforts at income. Self-defeat, high anxiety, general institutional distrust. All of that is triggered by this absolutely overwhelming, impossible feeling of debt.”
Focusing on parenthood
Just a few months out of prison, Earl Harris is not sure whether his debt has been written off as uncollectible. He hasn’t received any communication from the child support agency in more than a year.
For the time being, he is focused on being a dad. He phones his daughter, now 21, asking her about her job. He has a 13-year-old son, now, too.
“The boy is very shy,” he said. “I mean, I was away for so long. . . . He doesn’t know me how he should.”
The other day, they went bowling, Harris and his son. He tried to get the conversation rolling, asking questions about Black Ops, one of the boy’s favorite video games, and about the upcoming school year.
“Hopefully, when I get a paycheck, I’ll be able to buy him school clothes,” Harris said.
One night, after a day of work at the factory, Harris couldn’t reach his cousin for a ride. If he didn’t make it back to the halfway house in time, he would get a violation — which could delay his plans to move in with his child.
It was midnight. He’d been standing for eight hours, and he was across the river in Illinois.
He started walking, as fast as he could, in the direction of St. Louis.
Again I remain skeptical, but perhaps this is progress? I leave it up to you to decide.