Collecting Child Support

October 16, 1992

When as much as $5 billion dollars of child support goes uncollected in a year, too many children around the country are getting short-changed. So are taxpayers, who often end up paying to support these children. As things now stand, non-custodial parents can all too easily skip out on their financial obligations to their children simply by moving across state lines.

Legislation passed by Congress before it adjourned earlier this month makes it a federal crime to move to another state to avoid paying child support. That is a good symbolic move, but it doesn't go far enough. The states need more help in enforcing child support payments.

In order to streamline enforcement throughout the country, Sen. Bill Bradley, D.-N.J., has introduced federal legislation that would overhaul interstate collection procedures for child support payments. The plan would address a range of issues, from ways of establishing paternity to new ways of locating non-custodial parents who owe support.

Congress has addressed this problem before. But previous efforts in 1984 and 1988 got lost in the red tape generated by differet withholding procedures in various states. The problems caused by these differences are evident in the fact that one-third of child support cases are interstate, yet only $1 in $10 collected comes from interstate cases.

Senator Bradley's measure would provide some federal teeth to the states' collection efforts by making use of tax withholding forms. Under the legislation, new employees would be required to note on W-4 forms whether they are required to provide child support and, if so, how much. Employers would be required to report on W-2 forms the amount of court-ordered support they had withheld from wages. A national computer network would match that data with state records to identify parents who are in arrears. Other enforcement mechanisms include the power to suspend driver's and professional licenses of delinquent parents, as well as increased use of credit reporting and liens on property.

No business would allow $5 billion to go uncollected, and neither should states. Children and their custodial parents are powerless to enforce a court order by themselves. Yet they are the ones who suffer when checks don't arrive.

Senator Bradley's bill offers a wide-ranging program to help states live up to their obligations. It would cost the federal government $55 million a year to operate. But in its first year, at least, the plan is expected to boost child support collections by more than $200 million. That would still leave a lot of child support unpaid. But it would be an important start -- one that is long overdue.

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