One reason so many families end up on the poverty rolls is that the household depends on a single provider, usually the mother. Often there is a non-custodial parent who ought to be contributing to the family's income, but payments never arrive. That helps account for the fact that 68 percent of the state's welfare recipients are children, and makes collection of child support payments a natural target for welfare reform efforts.
Aided by a series of legislative reforms, Maryland's Child Support Enforcement Agency has increased collections of child support payments by more than 300 percent in recent years, from $86 million in 1989, to almost $229 million in 1993. The single most important factor in that dramatic increase is the ability to garnish wages of non-custodial parents who owe child support. This session, the Department of Human Resources is asking for legislative approval for further child support initiatives, some of which are mandated by federal law.
One key to improving collections is to make it easier to establish support orders. But that can be done only if paternity can be established within a reasonable time, and the legislative proposals include provisions to streamline that process. Some of these changes also are mandated by federal law; a case in point is a proposal requiring a Maryland court to recognize paternity judgments established in other states. Other provisions focus on closing administrative loopholes and enhancing collection procedures. The Senate has already acted favorably on the legislation, and it is now pending in the House of Delegates.
Child support enforcement is an important part of the welfare debate, but it is not a panacea. After all, how can an unemployed father pay child support? A truly comprehensive approach to child support and welfare reform would assist fathers as well as mothers. All too often, programs aimed at creating self-reliance succeed in helping young mothers get on their feet, while young fathers continue to flounder. Programs that do reach out to fathers have found that many of them are eager to become involved in their children's lives, when given a chance to practice parenting skills or to hold a job that enables them to pay support. And common sense suggests that when bonds between fathers and children are encouraged, men are more likely to be conscientious in paying support.
However, those caveats do not diminish the importance of the current legislation. This year the General Assembly has an opportunity to make significant progress in easing the poverty of many Maryland children.