Who Pays? Who Benefits?

Author: Susan Stanton . Date: August 23, 2018

Georgia’s Parental Accountability Court (PAC) program recently received an award from the National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA). PAC “intends to assist families by offering an alternative to incarceration for chronic nonpayers of child support.” By 2017, the program operated in 31 of Georgia’s 49 judicial districts and included: volunteer opportunities, literacy training, job assistance/placement, mental health services, clinical assessments substance abuse treatment and coaching/mentoring. From 2012 through 2017, the PAC program reported working with 4,758 noncustodial parents who subsequently paid an estimated $5.3 million in child support. To be accepted into the program, noncustodial parents must have been: incarcerated or in contempt of court for failure to pay child support/child abandonment or referred in lieu of incarceration. This suggests that Georgia incarcerated or was on the verge of incarcerating up to 4,758 parents (who likely were experiencing poverty and unemployment, and therefore had no ability to pay) for chronic nonpayment of pay child support.

According to the most recent and reliable research on this issue, nationally, 83% of child support debt is owed by parents whose income is less than $20,000 and 42% is owed by parents with no reported income (Sorenson et al, 2007). The extent to which people in Georgia’s PAC were poor is unclear, but the national data suggests that many of those parents may not have had the ability to pay. Not having a job and/or being poor is stressful. Parenting is stressful. Parenting when there is court-ordered child support is often more stressful. The threat of incarceration is anxiety producing and the reality of incarceration is destructive to children and parents. The chance for relief from the stress of debt that is offered by programs like PAC is attractive for parents struggling to support themselves and raise their children. For more than 20 years, mothers, fathers and loved ones have described this situation to the Center for Family Policy and Practice (CFFPP) in interviews and listening sessions. Parents try to avoid incarceration for all the reasons anyone would—including the fact that it separates them from their children and makes it virtually impossible to provide any kind of support for them. They regularly tell us that when the threat of jail for nonpayment of child support is imminent, family and friends rally to try and keep the parent with court-ordered child support out of jail. This means grandmas, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, girlfriends, friends and neighbors pitch in. Custodial parents have contributed to keep the other parent out of jail. Grandmothers have contributed from their Social Security checks. (See What We Want to Give Our Kids, p. 14-15 and If I Had Money, p. 15-17.) Many of the contributors also struggle to make ends meet, but they don’t want to see someone they care about, especially a parent, go to jail. In other words, money is yanked from struggling families and communities to keep the parent (who is likely experiencing poverty and unemployment) out of jail.

In 2016, child support debt in Georgia totaled $2.4 billion. Ironically, in the case of a family that currently receives or has ever received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash benefits, when any of the court-ordered amount is paid through the state, only a small portion of that child support payment may actually go to the custodial parent. In accordance with state and federal law, money paid on behalf of some of the very poorest parents and families, can be retained by the state as reimbursement for public benefits received by the custodial parent. In Georgia, $295 million of the 2016 child support debt was earmarked to the state as reimbursement for TANF (see Child Support Debt in Georgia Frustrates Family Economic Security for Black Parents and Children).

PAC is one of many programs focused on getting noncustodial parents to pay their court-ordered child support. If we also want to support parents’ ability to raise kids, then we need in-depth information and research about where the child support payments come from, where the money goes and what impacts the system has on parents, their families and their communities. Understanding the impacts and creating policies and programming that support parents also necessitates that child support agencies report the demographics—race, ethnicity, gender, income—of all noncustodial and custodial parents and their children, so that disparities can be tracked. Research must move beyond simply how much child support these parents pay to the state disbursement center to include demographics about the parents and the impacts of the system on parents’ ability to raise kids.