Closing the Child-Support Gap

September 19, 1991

Less than half of Maryland's 260,000 families entitled to child support actually receive it. For 123,000 families on welfare, the situation is even worse: 75 percent of these families never receive support payments from spouses. The link between the two groups is more than coincidental. Too often, the state must close the gap between what children need to survive and what they get from absentee parents.

In the '80s, states and the federal government put real teeth in collection efforts, using Social Security numbers and computers to tap wages, income tax refunds and even lottery winnings of spouses responsible for support payments. More get-tough measures are recommended by the U.S. Commission on Interstate Child Support to widen the enforcement web.

One proposal would create a national computer network capable of sifting through state and federal computer banks to find errant providers and tap information about income and other resources. Employers would be obligated to honor paycheck withholding orders from other states; in cases where absentee fathers and their children live in different jurisdictions, mothers could initiate support action in their home states. The commission also has suggested streamlining state procedures to get support payments flowing sooner and keeping support payments current with inflation and with the parents' financial situation.

Under the most radical of the commission's ideas, the federal government would stand in for putative fathers, guaranteeing a minimum level of support in cases where they could not be

found or made too little money to meet support obligations.

None of these ideas is cast in stone, but all are worthy of serious discussion. AFDC rolls and other safety nets are stretched to the limit. The states have for years been beefing up collection efforts with notable success, but policies and guidelines vary greatly. Standardization is essential. Still, further action by the federal government is crucial. Deadbeat spouses should not be permitted to escape their financial obligations to their children.

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