Imagine this: You're a single man in your 20s, in Baltimore, with an eighth-grade education and two young children. You've just served three years in jail for a nonviolent crime, such as selling marijuana.
While you were in jail — earning no income — your child-support obligations continued to accrue, leaving you $22,000 in arrears upon your release. This number (the average total amount owed by a noncustodial parent who is currently or formerly incarcerated, according to the Family Welfare Research and Training Group at the University of Maryland School of Social Work) amounts to more than you've earned legitimately in your entire lifetime.
In Baltimore, the collection of child support has been outsourced to a private, for-profit company, a subsidiary of Maximus Corp., whose website lauds its ability to "improve collections." This incentivizes a zero-tolerance approach to child-support enforcement, despite research indicating that certain well-defined arrearages will never be collected. In addition, the hidden cost of this merciless and relentless collection process on the underclass of Baltimore is rarely discussed. It results in substantial detriment to young men's lives and thwarts their participation in the formal labor force.
Let's start with wage garnishment. If you owe more than 12 weeks' worth of child support, you can have up to 65 percent of your take-home wages garnished. Let's say you manage to get a job making $10 an hour. This could leave you with as little as $3.50 an hour to pay for rent, utilities, transportation, food and clothing, not to mention caring for your kids.
Being more than 60 days in arrears also allows the state to garnish your bank assets — so forget about having a bank account. The state can take liens on your personal and real property, if you have any. And Maryland will not only suspend your driver's license but prevent you from holding any professional license in the state.
Even bankruptcy will not remove or restructure child-support debt. If you file income taxes, Maryland will intercept them. How do you get ahead?
If you're a single man in your 20s, with an eighth grade education and two young children who need food and clothing — and your only meaningful work experience happens to be selling drugs — then your options narrow quickly to that which got you locked up in the first place.
Today, in just five West Baltimore ZIP Codes, there is more than $37 million in child support arrears that will likely never be collected, but have been outsourced to Maximus. So, the collection process will continue unabated, and its socioeconomic impacts will continue to prevent young men from joining the formal economy, literally for the rest of their lives.
In this way, the child-support system actively perpetuates the drug trade. This makes no sense. I think we can do a lot better.
At the Center for Urban Families, we understand the system because so many of our clients face this barrier every day. At the core of the solution is one simple idea: Treat child-support arrearages like bad national bank debt. Reduce its value and write it off the state balance sheet.
In Maryland, the Child Support Payment Incentive Program is already taking small steps to chip away at this mountain of bad debt. The program allows noncustodial parents with incomes below 225 percent of the federal poverty level, who have made 24 months of consecutive child-support payments on their current obligation, to have their arrears reduced to zero.
Maryland recently took another step in the right direction: Thanks to the work of the Job Opportunities Task Force, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that advocates for increased employment opportunities for Maryland's low-wage and low-skill workers and job-seekers, new legislation will automatically suspend child-support orders for anyone sentenced to 18 or more months in jail and lacking the financial means to pay. Starting Oct. 1, the new law will help noncustodial parents reenter the workforce — and the lives of their children.
Programs like this must be expanded and strengthened; for example, the payment incentive program would be significantly more successful if it allowed some leeway for men who work seasonal labor jobs and are unable to make payments for a few months of the year, or who are otherwise laid off. Allowing for flexibility when the father's income decreases or disappears would ensure that men don't get hopelessly behind.
The reasoning is simple: Writing off child-support arrearages gives the "dead-broke" dad a break without removing the mechanisms that hold "deadbeat" dads who simply refuse to pay accountable. To accomplish this, we must better manage the collection process and collections agencies, so child support doesn't become a life sentence.
It's time to bring these young men out of the underground economy, and we need the public's support. If we, as a country, can write off mortgage debt for banks with balance sheets the size of small countries, why can't we write off child-support arrearages for young men who have found stable employment, who have relationships with their children, and who keep up with current child-support obligations? Why not help these guys get ahead?
David L. Warnock is founder and CEO of Camden Partners, a private equity firm in downtown Baltimore, and chairman of the nonprofit Center for Urban Families, a workforce development organization in Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.