Child Support Policy: Radical Reforms Get a Look

December 12, 1993|By DICK MENDEL

It's no surprise that Geraldine Jensen is screaming for radical surgery to the nation's child support enforcement system. Ms. Jensen and her two sons spent 10 years mired in poverty and cashed more than a few welfare checks before enforcement agents forced her comfortably employed ex-husband to cough up support.

What's news is that Washington is taking her seriously.

Ms. Jensen, who founded and now directs the 25,000-member Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, wants Congress to pull the plug on the $2 billion-a-year state-based child support enforcement program and instead sic the IRS on deadbeat dads. And when absent parents can't or won't pay, Ms. Jensen is demanding that the federal government guarantee single mothers a steady support check -- at taxpayers' expense.

A major new federal program? A brand new entitlement? In this day and age? Unlikely as it sounds, lawmakers of both parties and the co-chair of the president's welfare reform task force insist that these and other revolutionary changes may soon be enacted.

The reasons are stark and simple: At a time when more than one in four children live apart from either mom or dad, absent parents forked over only $11 billion in 1989. That's just two-thirds of the $16 billion they owed and about one-fourth of the $35 billion to $50 billion that experts say they should owe if every custodial parent entitled to a support order had one and if these orders were updated regularly to reflect absent parents' true income.

Increasing child support is prerequisite both to reducing the nation's alarming child poverty rate and to achieving President Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it."

"There's no question that the existing child support system is operating extremely poorly," said David Ellwood, an assistant health and human services secretary and co-chair of the Clinton welfare reform effort.

The Clinton welfare initiative, under Mr. Ellwood, has accelerated an already snowballing drive toward fundamental change in child support. The most sweeping idea under consideration is a federally guaranteed child support benefit. Under this proposal,

if custodial parents are unable to collect a minimum level of support -- perhaps $2,000 to $3,000 for their first child and $500 to $1,000 for each subsequent child -- the government will make up the difference.

This so-called "child support assurance" was initially proposed a decade ago by Irwin Garfinkel, an economist then at the University of Wisconsin. By providing a base income that single parents can keep if they work but not if they're on welfare, Mr. Garfinkel argued, an assured benefit would not only reduce poverty but also make work more attractive than welfare.

Mr. Garfinkel estimates that a nationwide assured child support benefit of $3,000 coupled with an improved but still imperfect support collections system would reduce the welfare rolls by 32 percent. Counting the savings in welfare and Medicaid, Garfinkel projects that the new child support benefit would add only $2.1 billion per year to the $1.4 trillion federal budget.

Although these estimates are untested, the logic behind the child support assurance has attracted lawmakers of both parties. The Republican House Wednesday Group called for state-level demonstrations of the assurance scheme in 1991, as did West Virginia Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV's National Commission on Children. Last year, the U.S. Commission on Interstate Child Support proposed demonstrations of the assured benefit, and Mr. Rockefeller and Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut each introduced a bill to pay for them. In the House, Democratic Rep. Thomas J. Downey of New York and Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois issued a report last year calling for nationwide implementation of a child support assurance.

The proposed assurance has its share of detractors. Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute calls it "welfare by another name."

"The long and the short of it is that the mother gets $1,000 per child whether or not the father pays," Mr. Besharov said. "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. And this is a welfare program."

Mr. Besharov also argued that the costs of the assurance have been substantially underestimated. "The whole concept is based the false assumption that you can raise enough in increased child support to pay for a brand new welfare program," he said. "You can't." Mr. Hyde, who endorsed the proposal last year, has since cooled in his support for the assurance -- at least as a nationwide program. "Right now I think that would be too much to swallow," he said. "It doesn't seem a propitious time right now for a major new program that might have a big price tag. I'd like to see what it actually costs in practice."

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