As the fight for child support reform heats to a boiling point, it is common to hear and see articles and statements suggesting that the child support system the government designed to destroy the Black family, and more specifically, the Black man. Because this statement has resulted in many articles, social media posts, memes, and other communication outlets, it is essential to verify or dispel this hypothesis’s validity. The number of supporters of The Reform Child Support NOW! Movement grows across the nation and has reached people all around the globe. Due to this great reach and because parents so desperately need child support reform on a global scale, it is imperative that the information shared nationally and internationally concerning demographics and other statistics be as accurate as possible.
Depending on the state and country, there are mixed demographics, procedures, laws, enforcement practices, and they are all affected differently by child support issues and regulations. For this article, the discovery, and if necessary, the exploration of any discriminatory laws and practices will remain in seven states within the borders of the United States. I chose these seven states because they have the highest reported arrears allegedly owed by non-custodial parents. Arrears in child support is a term that refers to past-due child support owed to a custodial parent (Anna Assad, 2012).
The federal government has made no secret about the arrears allegedly owed by parents across the country. It uses the sky-high amount reportedly owed to encourage the backing of the child support system. According to a report published by the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) Agency on September 15, 2017, and written by Dennis Putze, as of April 2017, 5.5 million delinquent non-custodial parents, or debtors, owed over $114 billion in past-due child support.
Of this $114 billion, the top arrears owed were reported by the following states:
1. California $17,471,156,608
2. Texas $15,844,922,985
3. New York $7,001,274,537
4. Michigan $5,947,072,245
5. Florida $5,636,606,603
6. Ohio $4,876,911,477
7. New Jersey $3,123,202,161
The OCSE reported this data as part of the Federal OCSE Annual report to Congress along with other information, including but not limited to undistributed child support collections, pass-through payment amounts, state incentive payment history, etc. Additionally, regarding racism, the selected states have the highest arrears owed nationally, some of the harshest punishments against parents accused of owing child support debt, and regularly making headlines because of child support issues. These headlines are rarely due to positive or uplifting situations. But instead, headlines involving mass arrests, prison sentences, and debt amounts that realistically cannot be paid by parents.
California has the highest child support debt and, arguably, has its share of problems, but racist child support policies may not be one of those problems. This home of the glitzy, glamorous, and wealthy celebrities of all races and ethnic backgrounds, the state has gained just as much fame for its anticipated blockbuster releases as it has for its ugly divorce, custody, and child support cases. The way fans view the parents’ superstar status and the ridiculous amount of support being sought by custodial parents after a breakup can be attributed to the notoriety of these particular cases. The monthly child support payments ordered are more than regular working people could earn in a year.
But, some would argue that child support laws are written as a transfer of wealth and not as a financial source to provide basic needs for a child when one parent lives outside of the home. Because the Golden State has such a diverse population, one could speculate that the celebrity child support cases would be as varied as the couples when dealing with the racial makeup of the parents. And for the rich and famous, this might be accurate.
According to Summer Buesing of The Richest (2014), Eddie Murphy was court-ordered to pay $59,950 per month for child support while Mel Gibson was on the hook for much less at $20,000 per month. But the $20,000 does not come without other potential income for the mother of their daughter. Gibson also agreed to pay Oksana Grivorieve $750,000 in installments over five years (Buesing, 2014). Both men are paying substantial sums, and it would be safe to say that their bank account holdings versus skin color controlled the child support court rulings and monthly payment amounts. However, for the less rich and the not-so-famous parents, racial discrimination may, at least according to some, play a significant role in child support outcomes.
Since California ranks numero uno in the amount of arrears reported, it is essential to identify the connection between child support and the Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) (formerly known as Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC), and universally known as welfare systems. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) (2012) explained that child support enforcement agencies were traditionally set up as cost recovery agencies for the state for welfare payments. Over the decades since Former President Bill Clinton implemented the now y infamous (for many reasons) welfare-to-work program, the number of welfare recipients has reduced tremendously.
More states, including California, have added other public benefits to the mandate list requiring cooperation with the child support system in exchange for help. In California, the custodial parent must trade their right to child support to receive cash payments (TANF), Medicaid, State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and child care. According to the Office of Family Assistance (OFA) (2016), there were a total of 1,020,497 TANF recipients in California. Of that million-plus, the population with the highest TANF enrollment was Hispanic at 61.2%, Whites at 19.2%, and Blacks at 13.9%.
California has one of the highest African-American populations in the country, with 2,994,626 (8%) ranking at number five nationally (United States Census Bureau, 2015). Even though the African-American population has the lowest number of reported families receiving TANF benefits, the punishments executed by child support agencies affect the Black community more often due to the double-digit unemployment rate. As of 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for African-Americans was 11%. When comparing that rate with the unemployment rate of Hispanics (7.2%) and Whites (4.4%), it is inevitable that child support enforcement would affect a person with no income more frequently and more significantly than those gainfully employed.
Traveling south to The Lone Star state, the declaration that ‘Everything is Bigger in Texas’ rings true even with child support arrears. People cannot ignore arrears as they have reached a staggering $15,844,922,985 in 2016, while the current amount of child support owed was significantly less at $4,711,945,709 (Administration for Children and Families (ACF), 2016). Texas’ low-income parents can expect a monthly cash TANF grant of $286 for a family of three (a parent and two children) in exchange for signing over their rights to any future child support payments. Medicaid enrollment requires cooperation with child support as well. Even though many refuse to observe this act, Texas and a handful of other states pass-through or pay a portion of support collected to these vulnerable families.
Texas is number one in its African-American population, with almost four million people calling the state home. Hispanics, however, have the highest number of people receiving TANF benefits at 60.9%, while African-Americans make up 24.4% of those receiving cash public assistance (Office of Family Assistance, 2016). Even though the White population is the largest of the three ethnicities, with almost 14 million residents in 2015, according to the Office of Family Assistance (2016), only 13.6% reportedly received TANF payments. The demographics about welfare recipients and the mandate to sue for child support payments in exchange for TANF (and other welfare benefits) and unemployment rates are equally crucial to what group of people are the most negatively impacted by the possible unjust child support system.
The child support system collected approximately $33 billion in 2016, and the primary source of these collections comes from income or wage withholding. According to BLS (2016), wage garnishments are any legal or equitable procedure through which some portion of a person’s earnings is required to be withheld for payment of a debt. In almost all cases, the only way to garnish income is through a paycheck from an employer after child support paperwork has been processed. Of course, many people work ‘under the table’ to avoid paying federally-owed debt such as taxes, student loans, and child support arrearages. In FY 2015, 75% of the $32.4 billion of collections were attributed to income withholding, that is, support payments withheld from the non-custodial parent’s paychecks (OCSE, 2016).
With every state across the nation, the unemployment rate is always highest among the African-American population. In Texas, African-American unemployment was 7.6% in 2016, followed by Hispanics and Whites at 5.1% and 3.6%, respectively. Since Texas is a state that often boasts about having some of the ‘harshest’ punishments against child support debtors, it is essential to explore those punishments and how the most vulnerable are affected. For instance, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TX DMV) can deny motor vehicle registration renewals of parents who have gone at least six months without making a child support payment (The Attorney General of Texas).
It is more likely that parents will have difficulty paying their child support due to unemployment, which would prevent them from renewing their vehicle registration. Because more Black Texans are unemployed, these parents will continue to be affected more often than parents of other races. Likewise, Texas is a state that regularly conducts mass arrests, often called child support ’roundups,’ against parents accused of owing child arrears. Since the federal government mandates that states operate systems to track potential child support debtors, it is a safe deduction that race is not a factor when vehicle registrations are flagged/denied; debt triggers agencies to issue arrest warrants.
It would be a more realistic supposition that the computer system extracts names based on the length of time child support has been unpaid and the amount of child support owed during a specific time frame. Again, verifying that the child support system generates documents to approve the hunting and punishing of parents based on their financial, not ethnic, history and makeup is more plausible than executing those same actions based on race, color, or creed. Ohio, the state that piloted the child support program under Former President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, made the top seven highest arrears in the nation list. Clinton implemented both it and welfare reform simultaneously, and the statistics are interesting.
To start, Ohio ranks number six in the amount of arrears owed by parents (some non-parents), reporting that in 2016 $4,876,911.477 was owed in comparison to $1,871,657,010 in current payments owed (ACF, 2016). Ohio mandates that custodial parents sue for the monthly TANF benefit of $474 (for a family of three) and food stamps. According to Paula Roberts (2000), states are allowed, but not required to, impose a child support cooperation requirement on both custodial and non-custodial parents who receive food stamps. Currently, only five states, including Michigan and Florida, force custodial parents to sue in exchange for food vouchers.
Exchanging signatures for help can be viewed as an additional hurdle that families can and will face if the parent refuses to participate with child support enforcement. Ultimately, children, supposedly the most important people named in the child support situation, could starve because of this mandate. Of the participants of TANF-only benefits, White custodial parents lead in enrollments making up 52.34% of the total 107,062 reported people (ACF, 2016). African-Americans and Hispanics are trailing behind at 39.3% and 5.6%, respectively.
Again, enforcement is triggered when parents become delinquent, and African-American parents fare no better regarding employment opportunities in Ohio. In 2015, the unemployment rate for Black Ohioans was 10.8%, even though the African-American population ranked #11 in the nation at 14% (Black Demographics). With unemployment in double digits, African-Americans would inevitably be the population most affected by child support enforcement and punishments. The birth rate for unmarried parents plays a pivotal role in the participation rate in the child support system by non-traditional families.
The history of the child support system can be traced to Washington DC in 1950 when Congress amended the AFDC law by requiring state welfare agencies to notify law enforcement officials when benefits were furnished to an abandoned child by one of her parents (The House Ways and Means Committee, 2012). Fast forward to 2018, the child support program in its core has not shifted. The difference is that instead of being reported to law enforcement when a parent ‘abandons’ a child, they need only be unmarried to the custodial parent. A revamp to the agency in the 1970s made amendments to include a new demographic of children. According to The Ways and Means Committee (2012), most children needed aid because their parents were separated, divorced, or never married.
Due to this population being the most targeted, single-parent homes became those most in contact with child support enforcement. Even though White families led in the number of families receiving TANF in Ohio, the difference in birth rates between White, Black, and Hispanic families was significant. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) (2016), there were 109,566 births to Black mothers, 25,078 to White mothers, and 6,974 births to Hispanic mothers. The difference between birth rates of Black mothers and mothers of other races can explain why some believe that child support enforcement targets Black non-custodial parents. Since unwed parents are the target market for the child support system, people should consider marriage statistics when deciding if racial bias exists within the child support system.
The CDC (2015) reported that Ohio had an overall marriage rate of 5.9%. When compared to other states, that number sheds some light on why there is such an outcry of racial disparities within the child support system from Black parents. According to R. Kelly Raley, Megan M. Sweeny, and Daniel Wandre (2015), all Black Americans display lower marriage rates than other racial, ethnic groups. Because of the lower marriage rates, more single custodial parents (predominantly mothers) may find the need to apply for public assistance. Likewise, divorce rates for Black women of all ages are higher than for women of other races. Again, divorces often result in one parent gaining full custody of the child and, therefore, child support obligations are required to be paid by the father (in most cases).
According to a report published by the Pew Research Center (2017), Black men are twice as likely as Black women to have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity (24% vs. 12%). Because of this fact, children with Black fathers from divorced and never married relationships have mothers who are also Black. Interestingly, research shows that Black adolescent girls who go to predominantly white schools are less likely to be involved in romantic relationships (Raley et al., 2015). Factors such as these undoubtedly contribute to who is more affected by child support laws and punished by child support enforcement. Again, since Black women statistically head these single-parent homes, it goes to reason that their ex-partners, Black men, would seem unfairly targeted by the child support system.
The reality is that unwed parents and children born out-of-wedlock to Black parents are the reason for the financial success and longevity of the child support enforcement. Again, this is due to an 11% unemployment rate and other disparities plaguing African-American communities in Ohio and nationwide. These socioeconomically driven factors cause the discrepancies in the Black community and not the guidelines and policies precisely. Every person with their name in the child support system faces the same punishments when they find themselves late on payments. Skin color is likely not considered when localities execute penalties against delinquent parents.
Looking in on New Jersey, this state ranks number seven in child support arrears as it reports that non-custodial parents owed $3,123,202,161 in 2016. While the unemployment rate in the African-American community is the highest (of course) when compared to other races and the population outnumbers the different demographics regarding receiving TANF benefits, the most significant factor affecting parents of color in the Orange State is the prison crisis. The 6,506,870 reported White New Jersey residents greatly outnumbered the 1.4 million Black New Jersey residents in 2016 (US Census, 2017). Even with this tremendous gap between White and Black residents calling New Jersey home, the total opposite is valid for the prison population.
According to Shaundra Selvaggi of the Atlanta Black Star (2016), African Americans make up 15% of the state population but 60% of the prisoners. When discussing mass incarceration and how it affects child support payments, more importantly, child support debt, it is critical to identify any predetermined racially discriminatory guidelines. According to Rutgers University (2014), one in 28 children has a parent behind bars, and 1 in 9 African-American children (11.4%) had a parent incarcerated. This number is exceptionally high and equally disturbing when compared to incarcerated parents of other races. One in 28 Hispanic children (3.5%) and one in 57 White children (1.8%) have an incarcerated parent (Rutgers University, 2016).
It can be traumatic for any child to be raised with an absent parent, regardless of the absence is caused by parental alienation perpetrated by the custodial parent or from incarceration. More African-American children face this trauma in New Jersey. It is not uncommon for these incarcerated parents to already be indebted to the child support system before being arrested and sentenced for any significant amount of time. Unsurprisingly, research shows that incarcerated non-custodial parents regularly enter prison with child support obligations and arrears without any realistic ability to pay the debt. Often prisoners must rely on outside resources to obtain funds to purchase extra items they may need during their prison stint.
Wendy Sawyer of the Prison Policy Initiative (2017) wrote that a prisoner can earn between a low average of $.14 and a high average of $.63 per hour nationally. Even if they spent 24 hours and seven days of the week working, the pay by basic standards is barely survivable. The following chart details the total amounts that the parent would earn if while incarcerated and working nonstop:
Average Prisoner Pay 0.14 Per Hour $ .63 Per Hour
Per Day $3.36 $15.12
Per Week $23.52 $105.84
Per Month $94.08 $423.36
Per Year $1,128.96 $5,080.32
Based on these calculations and if the incarcerated parent worked 24/7, they could earn $1,128.96 and $5,080.32 annually. An incarcerated parent could only earn this ‘salary’ if they were permitted to perform a paying job instead of the prisoner assigning a task for free as part of their prison sentence. According to OCSE (2012), the average incarcerated parent with a child support case has $10,000 in arrears when entering state prison and leaves with $20,000 in arrears. For any person depending on a minimum wage paycheck, $20,000 in debt can be devastating. Still, couple owing that amount of debt with factors such a felony conviction, unemployment, and racial discrimination, that debt turns into a lifetime ball and chain tightly secured around the neck of the non-custodial parent.
Focusing on New Jersey and the amount of child support debt an incarcerated parent will owe upon release from prison, African-American fathers are the most affected by child support laws. For instance, as of January 3, 2017, there were 19,619 total offenders in New Jersey Correctional Institutions, of which 61% were Black (Office of Policy and Planning, 2017). This number is disproportionate and certainly contributes to the mystique that the government designed the child support system to target Black men. As child support enforcement rules and guidelines punish alleged ‘deadbeats’ for failing to pay child support, prisoners, mostly Black fathers, are hit the hardest because of the incarceration rates of fathers of color. African-Americans in the Northeastern state are locked up at a rate of 12 times that of Whites (Selvaggi, 2016).
Four states follow close behind New Jersey with its egregiously high incarceration rate. African-Americans are locked at a rate ten times that of Whites in Iowa, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wisconsin (Selvaggi, 2016). Higher incarceration rates at that level mean that the arrears for African-American non-custodial parents will be much more outstanding in these states due to child support laws that previously recognized incarceration as ‘voluntary’ incarceration. This law allowed child support officials to refuse downward child support modifications, which would have decreased the child support order amounts during incarceration, thus reducing the amount of child support the parent owed upon release.
What is more devastating is that the pattern of racial disparity is almost guaranteed to repeat in New Jersey by spilling over onto the youth who are, more than likely, the children named on those same child support orders. The youth camps reported 12,835 total offenders in 2017. Of these nearly 13,000 prisoners, 60% were Black, 22% were White, and 17% were Hispanic (Office of Policy and Planning, 2017). Likewise, there were huge disparities in county jails, halfway houses, recovery programs, and re-entry programs, especially regarding Black and Hispanic offenders reported at 2,013 and 338. Even though education and awareness could outstandingly benefit these young people, educators are failing to teach any courses to high schoolers about the risks associated with children born out-of-wedlock and child support involvement. Education could prevent future child support debtors and eliminate accumulating child support arrears during incarceration. And more importantly, possibly avoiding incarceration entirely.
A new bill passed by Governor Chris Christie will supposedly help tackle the disparities that the African-American population face regarding prison sentences in New Jersey. Under the new system, judges are encouraged to consider a detainee’s threat to the community instead of the flight risk when setting the bail amounts (Selvaggi, 2016). The new provision may assist when releasing prisoners once arrested but does nothing to end the unconstitutional and illegal child support ’round ups’ perpetrated by New Jersey law enforcement officers regularly. Although many cities nationwide participate in these mass raids, which result in numerous arrests of child support debtors, New Jersey is particularly notorious in the number of raids law enforcement executes across the state.
New Jersey does not have hearings to determine the financial status of the parents, if they can afford to pay the child support debt/payments, or if there are ever any reports of due process hearings held. These clear violations affect all child support cases but specifically Black men as they, again, have the highest unemployment rate in New Jersey at 6.8% (BLS, 2017). According to Raley et al. (2015), Black men have more trouble transitioning into stable full-time employment. Gaining a full-time job will only become more complex with an arrest record, and once again, the child support system becomes a bullet aimed at the Black father’s back.
When considering these factors and the fact that Black families accumulate less wealth than White families, child support will undoubtedly affect the African-American population at a greater rate. The results can and have been more devastating to the community. Many issues affect the outcomes of the execution of the child support system.
Every state is responsible for drafting and implementing child support laws and guidelines. However, the federal government is the ultimate overseer and enforcer of the system. With that in mind, legislators have enacted laws strictly prohibiting government employees from discriminatory practices, which should be universal across the nation and in all government facilities. Officials must follow non-discriminatory rules no matter what level of government is administering child support policies.
To be clear, having these statistical findings and other information does not mean that past legislators designed the child support system t to destroy the Black family or, more specifically, the Black man. The government created this program to recover governmental costs associated with supporting abandoned children and force a husband and father to provide for his family since women traditionally did not earn an income outside the home. The welfare program, just like almost every other program in America at that time, was strictly reserved for the White population. Black mothers could not enroll in the welfare program, so the destruction of the Black family by the government was perpetrated through other avenues. It was then ‘reformed’ to recover welfare costs (remember welfare benefits are grants, not loans) for mothers living in poverty.
Socioeconomic factors such as high unemployment, over-policing, over-sentencing, workforce discrimination, etc., contributed to the African American community being targets of child support enforcement and punishments. The stark reality is that the only color that matters is the color of money green. If the extortion, excuse me, child support, is paid, there is seemingly nothing for the non-custodial parent to worry about regarding punishments no matter their race, color, or creed. Soaring unemployment rates, over-policing, over-sentencing, elevated rates of babies being born out-of-wedlock to low-income African-American parents are factors that elevate the risk of interaction with child support enforcement.
Barriers and prejudice mean that the rules and guidelines are more significant triggers when dealing with child support in the Black community. Unmarried, low-income mothers-of-color need to be aware that when applying for TANF, Medicaid, and or SCHIP, short of ‘good cause’ they will be mandated to sue the other parent for child support. Other benefits may require that same mandate, so it is vital to read before signing any welfare benefits or child support enforcement documentation. Likewise, unmarried fathers (and mothers) should always provide for their children. Paying parents should keep receipts in case the state files a child support complaint.
Without proper documentation validating that the parent has provided financial support, a judge can declare any money spent or items purchased as gifts. Notably, the over-criminalization of Black men in America is consequential when considering child support orders and child support debt. More than half of the prison population are parents and are unmarried to the mother of their child(ren). Even in states having higher White and Hispanic birth rates and TANF recipients, unemployment rates are still the highest among the Black community. Higher unemployment rates mean that without proper education and awareness, low-income, poverty-stricken homes, impoverished communities will be destined to continue and likely increase the number of people on the child support roles in the future.
As the fight to reform the unconstitutional child support system continues, it is pivotal to recognize that people from all walks of life are affected. From the rich and famous to the poor and homeless, the strong arm of the law seems to have no boundaries when punishing parents over child support issues. As outlined in this article, the system does not discriminate. Individuals hired to execute the policies of the program can and do discriminate. Many other factors contribute to the African-American community being disproportionately affected by the child support system. The only color that matters to the government is the color of the almighty dollar.
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