A new report about Maryland's child-support system says the state discourages low-income fathers from supporting their children by setting support amounts impossibly high.
Instead of bringing in more money for families, these high payment orders lead to debts that many low-income fathers can't hope to erase - in turn encouraging men to drop out of the formal economy and away from their families, according to the report published by Baltimore's Abell Foundation.
Among the report's findings:
More than 80 percent of Maryland parents with court orders to pay child support are behind in payments, many by thousands of dollars. The average arrearage is $6,834.; in Baltimore, it is $9,100.
The state's requirement that child support paid to mothers receiving welfare go directly to the state for reimbursement, instead of to the family, gives fathers little incentive to pay.
Maryland has the fourth-highest child-support guidelines for low-income families in the country, according to a 1999 draft of an Indiana University study. For example, a parent with two children who earns $10,000 a year must pay about $2,900 in support.
The report - by Wendell E. Primus, director of income security at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, and research assistant Kristina Daugirdas - says the solution is a combination of debt forgiveness and incentive programs for fathers who make efforts to pay, and supplementary payments from the state that would guarantee adequate support for children.
The report drew criticism from state child-support officials, who said they have been pioneers in reaching out to low-income fathers in Baltimore with job training and a pilot program to forgive some debts.
"I was surprised they would draw the conclusion that this community was not responsive," said Teresa L. Kaiser, Maryland's director of child-support enforcement.
The Abell report says efforts to employ fathers - efforts that are under way in Maryland and a growing number of states - can be of limited success if they are not coupled with more realistic child-support orders at reward efforts to pay.
The authors recommend that the state increase health coverage for low-income fathers who are working to support their children, and create a state-funded incentive plan that would exceed, match or supplement payments, depending on the father's income.
The report suggests that child-support payments be given directly to mothers on welfare, and that up to $400 a month of that support not be counted toward the welfare award.
Although the state formulas for calculating child support are called "guidelines," they have the force of law. Judges may deviate from them, but must specify why they have done so.
Kaiser said the Abell report, which focused on poor fathers in Baltimore city, doesn't reflect the child-support problem across the state: that three-quarters of parents who don't pay can afford to.
She acknowledged that although men in Baltimore City often are too poor to pay what is required by guidelines - 38.4 percent of each month's support bill is collected in Baltimore, compared with 62.7 percent statewide - low-income parents who live with their children are stretched just as thin.
"Yes, they're low-income dads, but these babies are desperate," Kaiser said. "The problem is, the pie isn't big enough."
Guidelines for low-income parents are under review, she said.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said: "If they are reviewing the policies, that's terrific. It's our perception the low-income father has been largely ignored, and people's image of these fathers are people who can afford to pay and are not paying."
Many parents aren't aware that support orders, once issued, can be modified in court, the report says.
Michael E. Loney, an Anne Arundel County circuit judge who heads the child-support enforcement committee of the Maryland Judicial Conference, admitted that many Maryland fathers owe large debts they have little hope of paying.
The judge cautioned, however, that blanket approaches to the problem of large arrearages likely wouldn't work. "I don't think it's simple enough to just come up with a mathematical equation or statistical answer to it," he said. "Behind every one of those statistics is a family."
Most of the report's suggestions would require legislative approval. Two legislators who have been active on the issue yesterday took dim views of spending state money for broad forgiveness programs. Both cautioned that they had not seen the Abell report.
State Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican who co-chairs the General Assembly's joint committee on welfare reform, said the answer is earlier intervention with low-income fathers, not state forgiveness programs.
Del. Mark K. Shriver, a Montgomery County Democrat who has sponsored legislation to seize drivers' licenses from parents who don't pay, said the legislature would have to look "long and hard" before passing large forgiveness programs. "We need to demand personal responsibility," he said.