NYT on the Child Support-Jail Cycle

For 25 years the campaign against “deadbeat dads” has nestled at that political sweet spot where conservatives, women’s advocates and budget hawks could all join in one accord. But what happens when the dads don’t have the money? Following the shooting death of Walter Scott in South Carolina, whose reasons for fleeing police at a traffic stop may have included an outstanding warrant for $18,000 in child support, interest and penalties, the New York Times investigates:

“Every job he has had, he has gotten fired from because he went to jail because he was locked up for child support,” said Mr. [Rodney] Scott, whose brother was working as a forklift operator when he died. “He got to the point where he felt like it defeated the purpose.”

One problem is that many of the techniques used to pressure fathers to pay support – including seizing bank accounts, “suspending driver’s licenses and professional licenses,” and jail terms even when brief – is that they tend to make it harder for the targets to resume earning wages in the aboveground economy. Lockups are themselves common: “in 2009, a survey in South Carolina found that one in eight inmates had been jailed for failure to pay child support. In Georgia, 3,500 parents were jailed in 2010.”

Whatever the pluses and minuses of such methods when aimed at the sorts of dads who have lawyers on retainer and access to offshore accounts, much of the laws’ punitive edge falls on those whose ability to pay is often notional at best:  

A 2007 Urban Institute study of child support debt in nine large states found that 70 percent of the arrears were owed by people who reported less than $10,000 a year in income. They were expected to pay, on average, 83 percent of their income in child support — a percentage that declined precipitously in higher income brackets.

In welcome if belated coverage, the Times and other press outlets have lately been documenting some of the ways in which low-level law-enforcement can snowball into life-changing consequences for those caught up in the system; last week, the paper documented how drivers’ license suspensions push many people who owe court debts further under water. Inevitably, some reformers on the legal Left wish to address these problems by adding new layers of government endeavor, such as new squadrons of tax-paid civil defense lawyers to fight child support and court-fine cases on behalf of debtors. Libertarians tend to ask more radical questions about whether government already tries to do too much – whether, for example, it makes sense to cross-criminalize between debt offenses and licensing, and whether an 83 percent marginal “tax” rate is likely to work out any better for low earners than it does for high ones. Isn’t it time the political class began catching up with these debates?