The United States government spends over $499 for child support enforcement for every $1 it spends to enforce access and visitation by non-custodial parents. That’s the news from a document entitled “Payments to States for Child Support Enforcement and Family Support Programs” issued by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. It’s a breakdown of expenditures for various programs in the recent past and budgeted for the near future. Here’s a link to the document which is an real eye-opener.
First the good news. The Office of Child Support Enforcement knows that keeping fathers involved in their children’s lives is good for all concerned, particularly the kids. It also knows that non-custodial fathers are a lot more likely to pay the child support they owe when mothers don’t obstruct access to their children.
The proposal also requires states to establish access and visitation responsibilities in all initial child support orders. The proposal also would encourage states to undertake activities that would support access and visitation. Implementing domestic violence safeguards is a critical component of this new state responsibility. These services will not only improve parent-child relationships and outcomes for children, but they also will result in improved collections. Research shows that when fathers are engaged in the lives of their children, they are more likely to meet their financial obligations. This creates a “double win” for children – an engaged parent and more financial security.
Great. So when it comes time to put their money where their mouth is, what do they do? The actual expenditures for 2010, the most recent year for which those figures are available, were $4,993,417,000 for child support enforcement including incentive payments to states and $10,000,000 for access and visitation support. Now, don’t blame the administrative agency for those radically unequal expenditures; the $10 million allocated for access and visitation is capped at that number by law. That’s right, our elected representatives in Washington refuse to spend more than that to promote children’s relationships with their fathers.
Back in 2010, I posted this piece on the respective expenditures by the State of Texas for child support enforcement and visitation. Back then, Attorney General Gregg Abbott was crowing about having received a $500,000 grant from Washington for access and visitation support, so I tried to figure out how much the state spent on support enforcement. My quick-and-dirty figuring suggested the figure was about $257 million. I was wrong. The figures in the DHHS document for expenditures for each state show that in fact, Texas received a whopping $378 million for child support enforcement versus just $702,000 for access and visitation. That’s about in line with the 499:1 national ratio.
And, as I said in my piece two years ago, if you’re trying to figure the relative values assigned by our current system of custody and support to custodial and non-custodial parents, that 499:1 ratio is about as good a measure as their is.
But it’s deceptive. In fact, it probably overstates the value we place on non-custodial parents’ relationships with their children. That’s because, as I mentioned in my previous piece, even the meager funds that are supposedly spent on access and visitation actually go to organizations that list support for those activities as only part of what they do. The Texas agencies I looked at included support for visitation as part of their mission, but you can guess what another part was, right? If you said “child support enforcement,” go to the head of the class. If other states are anything like Texas, only a fraction of that $10 million expenditure actually goes to promote visitation by dads.
But, as you might expect, it gets worse. The Access and Visitation Grants Program was established by statute in 1996 and funded in 1997. The same statute that caps support for access and visitation nationwide at $10 million, also restricts how funds may be spent in that worthy cause.
The statute specifies certain activities which may be funded including: voluntary and mandatory mediation, counselling, education, the development of parenting plans, supervised visitation, neutral drop-off and pick-up, and the development of guidelines for visitation and alternative custody arrangements.
Did you notice anything missing? Yep, me too. Not a single cent is to be allocated to help non-custodial fathers hire attorneys to enforce their visitation orders in court. Not a cent. Mothers who want help collecting child support have a free lawyer to represent them in court – the attorney general of the state she lives in. She’s got all the power of the state plus billions of dollars from the federal government at her beck and call at no cost to her. But the same federal government that spends billions every year in legal fees and administrative costs for custodial mothers, spends not a cent for father who want to see their kids. Most parents who divorce do so without a lawyer. That’s because they can’t afford one. Well, that continues to be true post-divorce, but if Mom wants help with child support, she gets it in spades. Dad? He’s on his own. If Mom prevents him from seeing his kid, it’s up to him to hire a lawyer. Gender equality anyone?
The remainder of the document verges on black humor. As we know, if Mom receives benefits under Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), it’s up to Dad to pay it back, so his child support check goes, not to Mom but to the state treasury. But the Department of Health and Human Services tells states that, if they so desire, they can send Dad’s payments on to his ex and child instead of keeping them for themselves. Yes, out of the goodness of their hearts, states can elect to forego that source of revenue. And if I won the Power Ball lottery, I’d give it to Mother Theresa. How much TANF reimbursement do states choose to send to custodial parents instead of keeping for themselves? The DHHS document doesn’t say, I suspect because the figure verges on zero.
Then there’s the fact that Washington pays states 66 cents for every dollar of “administrative costs” they incur in squeezing non-custodial parents. That of course means that the more money you spend in administrative costs, the more you get from the feds. It may come as no surprise that state administrative costs are high, given the fact that they have no impetus to be kept low. As of 2010, the feds spent about $4.5 billion to reimburse states’ administrative costs. At 66 cents on the dollar, that means states spent about $6.75 billion to collect child support. According to the DHHS figures, a total of $26.4 billion was collected in 2009. Assuming administrative costs were the same in 2009 as in 2010, that means they’re over 25% of the total collected. Not impressive.
By way of comparison, health insurance companies that spend over 20% in administrative costs are required under the Affordable Care Act to reimburse the overage to policy holders. Now, insurance companies have never been known for their efficiency, but they look like Scrooge compared to state child support collection agencies. Stated another way, child support enforcement is a massive gravy train ridden by lawyers and administrative personnel employed by state attorneys general and hauled laboriously down the track by an army of fathers who are denied that most humble of desires – to see their kids every so often. Nice.
Thanks to Steven for the heads-up.