Overcoming Problems with the Child Support System
The current child support system was built to help ensure that children are financially taken care of by both parents. Most agree that it was originally built with good intentions in mind, but unfortunately, flaws within that system often work against parents and children alike. The majority of parents paying into the Maryland child support system are fathers—92% in Baltimore city as of 2019—and an especially undue burden is placed on low-income fathers. When fathers fall behind on their child support payments, the debts they accrue hold them back from economic stability, and worst of all, it often pushes them farther apart from their child.
The majority of parents paying into the Maryland child support system are fathers—92% in Baltimore city as of 2019—and an especially undue burden is placed on low-income fathers.
How the System Works in Maryland
When a child support case is opened, the courts will look at the combined income of both parents and set a monthly payment based on state guidelines. However, this often isn’t the case for low income parents. According to the Abell Foundation, around 25% of child support payments are calculated using “imputed” income, which is a number based on potential full-time income, not a parent’s actual income. As of 2019, 47% of parents who owe child support in Baltimore City earned minimum wage or less, and only 57% are employed period. Since these low-income parents are actually earning far less than the hypothetical figure assumed by the state, payments can quickly become unmanageable. In addition, of the 57% of parents employed in Baltimore, their median annual wage was $20,372. This figure contrasts starkly with Maryland’s calculated “living wage,” which is $30,410.
Additionally, children don’t always directly receive their support payments. The state often intercepts child support payments to “pay back” public assistance received by the child’s custodial parent. Even once families are no longer receiving active assistance, the state will continue to intercept child support payments until the overall amount of assistance is repaid. When a father is already struggling to make payments, the fact that his payment isn’t directly benefiting his child but is instead looked at as state revenue can send the wrong message about what the system is all about. It also reduces a father’s drive to make the payments period, which puts him out of compliance with his court order and leads to further problems.
Why Dads Get Behind
The disparity in how much parents are expected to pay versus what they actually earn is vast. Parents who paid all of their child support were obligated to pay around 18% of their income, while the parents who made the lowest actual payments were expected to pay more than 70% of their income. When a parent’s actual pay is far less than what the court uses as a guideline for their monthly payment, or when they’re already making far under a living wage, it’s easy to see how they can get behind—there simply isn’t enough money to go around.
The parents who made the lowest actual child support payments were expected to pay more than 70% of their income.
Parents without an active income are also still required to make payments—child support obligation is not paused when a parent is unemployed or even incarcerated. When an incarcerated parent gets out of prison, they’re already far behind on payments. That debt coupled with the difficulties that come with trying to find employment with a criminal record can cause an intense struggle with making a living.
Owing a debt to the state also affects other aspects of life. Having unpaid child support lowers credit scores, which can keep dads from important purchases like a car or house. And those difficulties compound—lack of transportation or stable housing can cause disruptions in employment, which makes child support payments further difficult to make. It’s a tough cycle to break out of, and then it can get even tougher when punishments from the state come into play.
How Heavy Punishments Keep Dads Behind
Beyond a low credit score, failure to pay court-mandated child support can lead to other heavy consequences. The state of Maryland can revoke a parent’s driver’s license if they get behind on payments. Other penalties include wage garnishments, seizure of tax refunds, loss of state-issued professional licenses, notices to potential employers that the parent is behind on their child support, and even jail time. These harsh punishments often result in further economic instability, which only digs fathers deeper into the hole with the state. It also can have the unintended consequence of pushing parents into the underground economy in order to make ends meet.
Worst of all, the stress caused by the debt drives a wedge between father and child. Being behind on payments causes tension between fathers and mothers, which can lead to fewer visits or undue stress surrounding the visits. There is a difference between a “deadbeat dad,” who has the financial means to support his children but chooses not to, and a “brokebeat dad,” who simply can’t afford to make the required payments. The current system punishes both of these circumstances equally, and this lack of nuance can force a father, who wants to do the best for his children, into a spot that ultimately harms his family.
How CFUF Can Help
In addition to lobbying for much-needed statewide policy changes, the Center for Urban Families works directly with low-income fathers to help them overcome their problems with the child support system. By participating in programs like The Baltimore Responsible Fathers Project, CFUF helps fathers work with the state to reach an affordable monthly payment, as well as child support debt forgiveness. By completing the program and demonstrating a sustained payment history for a period of time, fathers can have up to 75% of their back child support forgiven.
Interacting with the many policies and procedures of the Maryland child support system can be confusing and overwhelming, so the program also helps fathers understand and better interact with the system. Plus, the program helps support dads in finding and keeping employment so they can make their payments and achieve economic stability. You can watch a video with more about this program here.
If you’re a father in Baltimore city interested in this program, stop by our office to get started.
**Figures referenced are from The Abell Report.