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Child support enforcement and assurance: one part of the anti-poverty strategy for women.

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT FASCINATES ME AS I CONDUCT CROSS-CULTURAL research is that not only are people aware of the cluster of issues involving women, poverty, employment opportunities, and welfare, but viewed in an international context, many of these issues also arise. For example, recent research undertaken by Sarah McLanahan demonstrates that whatever country you live in, the single greatest factor that correlates with poverty is being a mother. Conversely, if you are a woman, the one thing you could do in your lifetime to avoid the statistically high chances of becoming poor is to avoid becoming a mother.

If you think that social policy cannot be predicated on that particular norm, then you must address the alternatives to welfare or make the existing system functional. If people insist on making this very dumb choice to have children, then what do we do? What cross-cultural research tells us is that it doesn't matter what country they live in: there are two things you can do to stay out o poverty if you are a woman and have children. The first is to get married and stay married. The second is to get a job and hold onto it. Both of these things must be done to increase the statistical chances of avoiding poverty. If women do one and not the other, they are still in a world of trouble.

This suggests that we must think more broadly than we have about ways to end women's poverty. Most discussion has centered on work and AFDC. Less has been said about child support -- a serious oversight. A primary reason why women are poor, according to Roberta Spalter-Roth, is that they do not marry the fathers of their children or their marriages break up. In either case, women get the kids and inherit the debts and expenses. Very rarely does the noncustodial father pay child support.

The problem is serious and it is becoming worse. Fifty percent of all first marriages end in divorce. That is the level at which we have stabilized. Last year, almost one-third of the babies born in the U.S. were born to unmarried parents. What these numbers mean is that women with children are likely to spen a great deal of time as single parents. They will be raising their children on what they can get out of the labor force, possibly along with public benefits. Once you understand that, you also understand why mother-headed families in thi country have a 53% poverty rate. By themselves, neither the work system nor the public benefit system provide women with enough income to actually get their families out of poverty.

That has led a number of other people and me to conclude that we ought to take look at the issue of child support and inter-family transfer. Perhaps there is basis for building a strategy that could raise single families with children ou of poverty through better child-support enforcement coupled with child-support assurance. None of us, let it be clear, believe that child-support enforcement and child-support assurance are the only answers to poverty for single-parent families. That is an absurd notion. The idea we are trying to develop is that, along with other measures, it is incumbent upon us to look at the potential for child support as another source of income support for single mothers and their children. It could be combined with better public benefits and job opportunitie to make a package of income sources available so that single mothers could make choices about their lives. How could we do this?

Before 1975, child-support enforcement in this country was purely a private matter. It was governed by state law. Thus, there were 54 different systems for deciding who was eligible for child support, for setting child-support awards, and for enforcing those awards. It was bad enough when the more and dad happene to live in the same state, but when they lived in different states, trying to get an award enforced from one state to another was nearly impossible.

The old system was also based on a court model. That is, to resolve the questio of whether support should be paid, a mother needed to go through a very elaborate legal case-by-case process. Even today, mothers must persuade the courts to give time on the docket and convince lawyers to handle cases for them when they can't pay legal fees. If you have any experience with trying to get the courts to take women's issues seriously or trying to get lawyers to take cases for free, you will not be surprised to hear that this system really does not work very well.

In 1975, Congress entered the picture and required every state that has an AFDC program to also offer a system to help women obtain child-support orders. It is called Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. That law was amended in 1984 and again in 1988. The thrust of the reform has been to standardize procedures amon the states, to get cases out of the courts and into administrative process systems where they can be handled more expeditiously, and to develop child-support guidelines so that misogynist judges can't decide that they don't like you and therefore give you $5.00 a week in support. Today, there are actually standards for setting child-support awards and they are supposed to be used. The noncustodial parent's obligation is determined by income level.

There has been a great deal of progress in streamlining the system. Tragically, it hasn't made much difference. Today 40% of custodial mothers still don't have a child-support award. They don't even make it into the system because they can't get a lawyer to handle their cases. Of the remaining 60% who have managed to get an award, only half actually collect what is owed. The combined effect o those numbers is that only about one-third of custodial mothers receive child support as a regular source of income. The custodial mother who is most likely to receive child support as a regular source of income is a white college graduate who is divorced and has remarried. The person who is least likely to b getting child support is an African American who has not finished high school and who has not been married. What that says, in a nutshell, is that the privat system, the system where you hire lawyers and go to court, is working quite well, thank you, for the affluent. The public system is a complete disaster. It is not doing its job and it needs to be reformed.

There are a number of ideas about how to reform that system. The most promising one, the one that I have been urging people to take a look at, is to federalize the collection system. We should eliminate the 54 state agencies and replace them with one unified system. One way to do this is to follow the lead of most industrialized countries and adopt a national child-support guideline. That guideline would make child support a percentage of the obligated parent's income. That amount would then be withheld from the paycheck the way taxes are now taken out, which eliminates the discretion in whether or not to pay. When both parents agree, why subject them to a lengthy court process to compel them to do what they already wish to do? In short, a great deal in that area bears looking at.

What would be the result of this? As Assistant Secretary Ellwood stated previously, the numbers are very encouraging. If we had a child-support enforcement system that actually set awards as a percentage of the obligated parent's income, and we enforced those orders, we could transfer somewhere between 30 and 50 billion dollars a year into the hands of custodial mothers an their children. That includes about five billion dollars that would go to mothers who are currently receiving AFDC.

Child-support enforcement alone, however, is not enough. There are parents who will literally do whatever they can to get out of paying child support. There are some fathers from whom we are never going to collect, no matter what we do. There are also mothers (especially those on AFDC) for whom there is an absent father out there, but his income is insufficient to pay much child support. Som of the fathers may not be able to pay at all; some can pay something, but it is not going to amount to much. That is where the idea of child-support assurance comes in.

In a child-support assurance system, you guarantee that every custodial parent will receive a minimally adequate amount of child support every month. If the government collects that child support, it will be fully reimbursed for the payment. If more is collected, then the custodial parent will receive the extra money. If, however, the government doesn't collect child support, or collects less than the guaranteed minimum, then the government bears the cost. Some believe that the collection system would be much more efficient if that were to happen. Right now, if the government doesn't collect, it is the family that suffers. By shifting the burden so that the government were to pay for its failures, the likelihood is that there would be fewer failures. That alone woul begin to drive the system toward greater efficiency.

This policy clearly helps low-income moms. Even if the dads are unable to pay much, the mother would have a reliable source of child-support income. That is the idea of child-support assurance. If the assurance payment were structured t interface with employment income and public benefits, mothers could have a variety of sources from which to put together an income package.

If I were entrusted to design it, we would have a child-support assurance benefit that would supplement part-time work and raise the family income above poverty, because I am firmly convinced that as a part-time worker and mother, you can do that and maintain sanity. It is not sane to think that single mother can work full time all the time and still have enough time to raise their children. Thus, we are thinking here about another source of income to feed int this strategy and to make it work.

To push this idea, I am involved in a campaign called Child Net. We are going around the country, holding forums to bring together groups like this, where people already care, as well as nontraditional allies to talk about child-support enforcement and assurance. One goal of the campaign is to bring a message to the Welfare Reform Working Group. We hope to get several thousand postcards with a simple message, "We believe that children are entitled to economic security. We support child-support enforcement and assurance." Later, we will be sending postcards and letters to the president and to Congress. Our goal is to build a grassroots movement that brings the mothers (and fathers in some instances) together as advocates for themselves. One of the major child-support advocacy groups, the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES), is involved in this effort. The more you include people who hav a stake in this issue, the more significant that group can be.

I urge you to get more involved with Child Net. I encourage discussions on the building of campaigns around the minimum wage, anti-discrimination, and child support. We need campaigns around a number of issues that keep the message out there. As Ruth Brandwein said, "This isn't about them out there, it's about us, about all of us, and if we begin to try to move this agenda, we could do it. We could build a movement. The question is whether we have enough energy to do it. I do, and I hope you do.

PAULA ROBERTS has worked at the Center for Law and Social Policy (1751 N Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036) for the past 10 years and is a graduate of Smith College and Fordham University Law School. For the past 25 years, she has worke on the issues of welfare reform, childcare, and child-support enforcement. Her books include A Guide to Welfare Reform (Food Research and Action Center, 1979) Women, Poverty, and Child Support (1986), Mapping the Future for America's Low-Income Children (1988), and Turning Promises into Realities: A Guide to Implementing the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1988 (1989). Her current interests include federalization of child-support enforcement and the adoption of child-support assurance.
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Title Annotation:Women and Welfare Reform: Alternatives to Welfare: Men and Markets?; speech by welfare expert Paula Roberts
Publication:Social Justice
Article Type:Transcript
Date:Mar 22, 1994
Previous Article:Women's reality: making welfare work and making work pay.
Next Article:After the family wage: what do women want in social welfare?

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