Debt, Indebtedness and Low Income Families

One of CFFPP’s roles is to further the understanding of social welfare policy and practice in relation to the lives of families of color with low or no incomes, oftentimes from the perspectives of parents with court-ordered child support debt, i.e. noncustodial fathers. Racial, socioeconomic and gendered analyses are often absent from discussions of related issues and we offer and/or highlight the need for them. On March 11-12, 2016, the Institute for Research in the Humanities (IRH), and the Comparative US Studies program, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hosted the Race, Property and Debt Symposium. At the event, scholars in history, literature, anthropology, and law explored different conceptions of debt, the structures that create a cycle of debt, as well as the lives of people molded by debt and the disparate impacts of seemingly race-neutral policies on people of color.

As we explore the issues that impact the economic security of struggling families, the different conceptions of debt provide helpful lenses. For example, many noncustodial fathers have child support debt, a financial liability that the legal enforcement system accrues often regardless of one’s employment status. However, child support law is not constructed to acknowledge other forms of indebtedness that parents may also value. For example, the responsibility and indebtedness that many of these same men feel toward their children lead them to actively engage in their children’s lives beyond paying child support (e.g., transporting children to school, reading with them, providing guidance during their teenage and adult years). Even though children and mothers might value this sense of indebtedness and the ways in which it contributes to the family, the law and governmental policy constructs child support debt solely as an economic payment. While they do need financial resources, neither children nor mothers benefit from governmental policy that further impoverishes or incarcerates fathers. The consequences for lack of payment impacts the father’s ability to continue to be present and involved in his children’s lives (see recent stories from Black fathers in CFFPP’s, “If I Had Money”).  Not unlike many of the policies discussed at the Race, Property, and Debt symposium, the language of child support policy is race neutral but the impacts are particularly dire for African American fathers with low or no incomes.

The thinking and examples from the symposium will assist CFFPP as we further develop and share understandings of how the policies and practices related to different conceptions of debt impact the economic security of low-income families of color.

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