A Choice between Cars And Kids

June 12, 1995|By FREDRIC HAYWARD

I am about to violate a solemn oath and reveal one of the most precious trade secrets of the automobile industry. But if I can save just one child from poverty, it will be worth it.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning.

People who are annoyed at the high cost of welfare often use a compelling argument against so-called ''deadbeat dads'' -- men who have a better record of maintaining their car payments than their child-support obligations.

According to the Children's Defense Fund, for example, less than 3 percent of people default on used-car payments, while 49 percent fall behind on child support.

The implication clearly is that men are heartless brutes who care more about their cars than about their kids.

Yet I know very few fathers who, if confronted with a gun and a demand to surrender the car keys or the kids, would scream "Take the kids! Take anything! Just leave me my Chevrolet!''

Well over a million vehicles are car-napped every year. But when was the last time you saw a picture of a missing Ford on a milk carton? Obviously, most men care more about their kids than about their cars.

So why don't they send those checks?

I decided to go undercover and investigate. I got a job with an automobile dealership in order to learn its methods of getting people to pay up.

You must swear not to tell anyone what I am about to reveal. Here's how auto dealers do it:

The auto industry allows people to keep the cars they are paying for!

That's right. People actually get to keep the cars. Sounds wacky, doesn't it? Yet as long as customers stay current on their payments, they are allowed to see -- even drive -- the cars they're paying for. With child support, of course, it's just the opposite.

To be sure, auto dealers tried the child-support collection strategy, which makes ever so much more sense (after all, it was designed by politicians).

Dealers used to insist, for example, that car owners garage their cars at the homes of the owners' sworn enemies.

Then they told the owners that their enemies were free to drive the owners' cars whenever they wished but that the owners themselves could only use their cars every other weekend -- if those sworn enemies who were enjoying them didn't happen to be in too rotten a mood, that is.

To their dismay, auto dealers found that for some strange reason customers rebelled against these strictures.

The dealers then tried other child-support collection techniques -- such as guilt. They reminded customers that, though they were denied the use and enjoyment of their cars, they were still the legal owners and had responsibilities.

Yet for some reason the record on car payments remained as bad as -- well, as bad as the record on child support payments.

In desperation, the dealers adopted another government strategy: If customers didn't faithfully remit their payments at the initial levels, for example, the dealers made the payments more expensive, on the ground that perhaps owners would be more compliant if they knew that their monthly checks not only were paying off their cars but also buying vacations in the Bahamas for the people who hated them.

Surprisingly, there was still no improvement.

In the midst of the debate, however, a visionary mind suggested turning the government logic on its head: Rather than tell car owners they must send a monthly check in order to subsidize the system that separated them from their cars, assure car owners instead that fulfilling their responsibilities would entitle them to keep their cars.

Presto! As the Children's Defense Fund statistics attest, the strategy worked like magic.

The curious must now be wondering: ''Could something so far-fetched perhaps be adapted to the child-support crisis?''

I know it sounds weird, but the Census Bureau seems to suggest that it can!

According to the bureau's study, ''Child Support and Alimony: 1989,'' 90 percent of fathers with joint custody pay child support in full and on time.

Is it just possible that the car dealers really do know something that the family courts have yet to figure out?

Fredric Hayward writes from Sacramento, California.

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