Letter from the Editor

Thursday, August 9, 2007

'Deadbeat' redoux

"Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack. I went out for a ride and I never went back..." - Bruce Springsteen, "Hungry Heart"

There isn't much lower than the so-called "deadbeat dad." The term conjures up images of the jackass who makes plenty of money, drives an expensive car, and refuses to take responsibility for the children he has fathered. The term "tar and feathers" comes to mind.

And while sadly, plenty of women and children have been left in poverty because of such situations, the more I see and read, the more I have had to amend my perceptions.

One man tells a story - from jail. After his marriage broke up, he took full responsibility to contribute to his child's future. But he suffered two heart attacks, and became homeless as he struggled to pay the medical bills. When he admitted he didn't have the money to make a child support payment, the state he lived in took away his driver's license, then his license to practice his career as a medical radiology technician.

In effect, the punishment ensured that the "crime" would be perpetuated - rendering it nearly impossible for him to work and thus make the money to support his child.

The man took whatever menial work he could find, making scarcely minimum wage, hoping to set aside his money to resume the child support payments. But by then, he had fallen behind to the point where a mandatory action kicked in, sentencing him to five months of spending every weekend in prison. Of course, he lost his job then, and found that no one else would hire him because he now has a record as a convict - despite a perfect record of making his child support payments while employed.

Other "deadbeat dads" have found themselves established for paternity - in at least one reported case involving a man who had never met the woman - because they were not aware they had only 30 days to question a paternity claim.

Cases are being reported of men who wanted to support their children, but were assessed amounts that overwhelm their ability to earn, and threatened to put their children of a more recent marriage into poverty crisis as well.

Still others want to make the payments, but are withholding them in a last ditch effort to force a disgruntled ex-spouse to grant the visitation rights that had been promised.

Of course, the children are the ones that suffer. And something has to be done. According to one national news source, 68 percent of all child support cases were in arrears at the time of a recent study. And a few years ago, it was estimated by the government that children were owed about $100 million in back child support.

That's money they need - and hopefully get - for nutrition, clothing, school supplies, medical care. Often, through welfare programs, the public has to make up for those debts.

Taxpayers have spent billions in tracking down "deadbeat dads," and probably as much again in paying for their incarceration. Putting parents in jail isn't going to get money to the children - in fact, it may often render it impossible to ever squeeze blood out of the turnips in question.

What we need, it seems, are not more prison cells, but programs to put those who owe child support to work.

While situations may differ from state to state, the ultimate goal probably should not be to imprison parents who fail to make payments. Perhaps in many cases it need no come to that in the first place.We will need all the common sense we can muster to suit payments to the situations - so that payments serve families fairly without being impossible to meet. And instead of punishing those who want to be responsible, it seems more productive to provide the resources to allow them to keep, or perhaps helping them attain, jobs in which they can fulfill their responsibilities.

The policies don't seem to differentiate those who can't from those who won't. And until we are able to do that, it will be very hard to fix anything.

Congress isn't helping. It has recently enacted a $25 annual fee against custodial parents for whom the courts collect $500 or more in back child support - most of the money goes to the feds.

What in the world could these people thinking?

Many of these same families are in poverty situations, desperate, and are appealing for help they deserve. And we are going to penalize them 25 bucks on top of it all? This may seem like a small administrative fee, but it is sending the wrong message.

Officials of the Iowa Department of Human Services tell me they aren't backing this legislation, in fact, they are ticked. They say the one-third of the dollars that would go to the states would end up costing the public more to try to collect than the state would actually end up getting.

Just swell, isn't it?

There are 191,000 families in Iowa that depend on child support payments. In Iowa, at least, the payments do not seem so generally unreasonable - an average payment of $180 a month should not strike anyone who has raised a child lately as lavish.

Viewing people as "deadbeats" and "criminals" isn't going to help us much. Nor can the public afford to bear the cost for tons of people in arrears to be imprisoned or forced out of employability and onto the welfare cycle. Forcing parents to flee the state will never get those kids their due.

Those people willing to step up to the plate of responsibility need a reasonable chance, even a second one. And as for that guy with the fancy job and the Cadillac, callously ignoring his own child, we'll bring the tar if you've got the feathers.

* Reach the editor at dlarsen@stormlakepilottribune.com