The daddy wars

February 07, 2006

The heated debates during the crafting of the 1996 welfare reform law were memorable for one point of agreement between those on opposite sides of the issue. If welfare mothers were being asked to be more responsible for their children's economic well-being, both sides concurred, then absentee dads were fair game, too.

Get the bums to pay child support, the thinking went, and the welfare rolls would shrink. Within the first four years of passage of the law, the rolls did shrink and the number of welfare cases closed because of child support collected increased by 56 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services

Child support collection rates have been rising ever since, from $12 billion to $22 billion since the law was passed. Yet under new welfare spending cuts approved by Congress last week, funding for state child support enforcement and collection programs will be drastically reduced. Without federal funding, about $24 billion in child support payments will go uncollected over five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

This penny-wise, pound-foolish policymaking undermines one of the main tenets of welfare reform - parental responsibility. And it will likely hurt new government efforts to promote marriage and fatherhood. The welfare measures adopted last week also include $500 million in funding for "healthy marriage promotion" and $250 million for "responsible fatherhood." It makes no sense to legislate conscientious fathering and to undermine it at the same time - and in the same bill, no less. If the old welfare system broke up poor families, as studies have shown, what does reducing child support collections say about sustaining these families? Some research shows that regular child support payments reduce conflicts between parents and that the prospect of having to pay it deters divorce and out-of-wedlock births.

In Maryland, the reduced funding will mean $59 million less for child support enforcement over five years and $35 million in uncollected payments. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other governors should push to have the cuts reversed in Congress, although the potential for quick action is unlikely given the years it took congressional lawmakers to adopt the new welfare rules.

In the meantime, there will be long-term social implications. Child support is the second-largest source of income for poor families receiving it, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy, and those who received it were more likely to leave welfare and less likely to return. Fathers who make regular payments are more involved in their children's lives, and the payments also have positive effects on children's achievement in school. Under the law, deadbeat dads who shirked their responsibilities were jailed until they paid up. But fathers who wanted to be more involved in their children's lives gained formal visitation rights.

Too bad poor children owed support payments got so little consideration on Capitol Hill. Let's just hope they're not left in the lurch just because their fathers were let off the hook.

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