Making deadbeats pay up at work

January 03, 1994|By Andrew Cherlin

WHAT if every father knew he would have to support his children after the breakup of a marital, live-in or even casual relationship?

Saturday, when an overlooked federal law went into effect, the United States began answering that question.

The law -- a delayed provision of the 1988 Family Support Act -- requires that, when a court orders a parent to pay child support, the parent's employer must withhold the money from his or her paycheck.

Since mothers and their children can plunge into poverty after a divorce or separation, improved collection of support payments is essential.

But although the law is a major advance, it has flaws -- in particular, a requirement that each state develop its own system for collecting and distributing support payments.

The sorry story of child support payments is well known. Half of all single mothers were supposed to receive child support in 1989, according to a Census Bureau study. Of those, only half received the full amount due that year; one-fourth received partial payment and one-fourth received nothing at all.

The new law is not retroactive. It applies only to divorce or paternity cases resolved after Jan. 1. Moreover, it allows couples to opt out of the system if they agree on another arrangement or if a judge finds "good cause."

Most troubling, however, is the patchwork state-by-state system of enforcement. Separate state systems are fine if parents who owe support remain in the same state as their ex-partners. Unfortunately, many don't.

In the Census Bureau study, 27 percent of mothers who were supposed to receive support reported that their ex-partners lived out of state. Of that number, 34 percent received nothing in 1989, as against 19 percent of mothers in same-state cases. The 50 separate systems will provide mothers with little help.

And the lack of coordination among the states imposes an unnecessary burden on employers. If I owned a business in New York City and had employees whose ex-partners lived throughout the region, I would quickly drown in paper.

According to New Jersey law, withheld wages go to county probation offices. According to Connecticut law, which will probably change, withheld wages of some employees go to a state agency and the rest directly to the ex-partners.

New York may legislate yet a different procedure. If my employees quit, I'm supposed to inform the probation offices, the agencies, the mothers or whomever New York designates.

In a society where half of all children spend time in a single-parent family, this crazy-quilt structure won't adequately protect children against poverty. A federal clearinghouse is needed to collect and distribute all withheld wages.

Employers would be required to send the names and Social Security numbers of all new employees to the clearinghouse, which would check them against a master list of individuals who owed support.

That way collections could be continued easily when parents moved across state lines. And employers could write just one check for the entire amount they withheld.

Some might object that this clearinghouse would add more bureaucracy and infringe upon employee privacy. But we already collect Social Security taxes in a similar way.

If we're willing to accept such a system to insure the well-being of the elderly, shouldn't we be willing to do the same for our children?

Andrew Cherlin is professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

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