involved in "public-private partnership" scandal
By Roger F. Gay
web posted June 17, 2002
On March 29th the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) released
another in a series of sensational reports on the child support enforcement
program. They report that collections as a percentage of the amount due
has dropped to an all time low of 17 percent and that $89 billion is "owed
but unpaid." They recommend further guidance from the Office of Child
Support Enforcement (OCSE) on allowing private collection companies access
to huge databases of personal information. To see a copy of the report,
Their new report, as with past reports was prepared from "data" conclusions,
interpretations, and recommendations provided to it by the subject, the
Office of Child Support Enforcement. Corroborative interviews were conducted
with a handful of select state child support enforcement bureaucrats.
To this writer's knowledge, the OCSE has never been subjected to a reality
check by any serious auditor. As Arthur Andersen did with Enron, the GAO
is playing the dual role of auditor and policy consultant and supporting
an untenable position.
Congress created the OCSE in 1975 with the goal of "forcing fathers to
pay" as a measure to reduce welfare spending. States and counties were
already collecting child support in welfare cases and enforcing orders
through state courts. No credible analysis indicated a sufficient potential
gain in payments to offset the cost of an additional enforcement program.
Huge increases in federal "investment" in child support enforcement have
since been authorized based on information from the OCSE, private collection
agencies, and other special interest groups. As much as $4 billion per
year in annual federal funding created a groundswell of support from state
In the 1980s, Congress expanded the welfare system far beyond the concept
of assistance to needy families to include the child support cases of
all divorced and never married parents and their children. This led to
a dramatic increase in "collections" by including higher income fathers
with no payment problems. The amounts that fathers were ordered to pay
were increased arbitrarily, further increasing the total "collected" and
also increasing debt. (See The
Beginning of the End of Child Support Reform.) More and higher payments
automatically increased federal funding. Increased debt led to windfall
profits for private collection agencies.
The federal government began replacing state and local automated child
support tracking systems with its own in the early 1990s at a cost totaling
around $4 billion. (See Too Late
to Stop National ID.) The first experiments with the automated system
confirmed what Congress already knew. Fathers had a good record of paying
court ordered child support. (Solomon, Carmen D., 1989, The Child Support
Enforcement Program: Policy and Practice, Congressional Research Service
Report for Congress, Dec 8, 1989, 1-3.) The most prevalent cause of non-payment
of court ordered child support is unemployment. (See Bibliography.)
The difference between the special interest version of a need for a huge
and expensive child support enforcement system and reality was not subtle.
A representative of the New Jersey child support enforcement unit explained
the results of using the new automated system in a national conference
held in Dallas in 1992. ("Child Support Technology" session, Third
National Court Technology Conference, organized by the National Center
for State Courts. Ray Rainville presenting.)
They started with the most egregious cases in the database, those showing
a debt in excess of $50,000. They expected little response to form letters
sent to "deadbeat dads" who would likely scurry underground to avoid punishment.
Instead, the response was more than their office could handle. They responded
in droves. They called, sent letters, telegrams and post cards, and came
into the office if they lived nearby.
A typical respondent had a son previously supported under court order
who was by that time 35 years old, had a masters degree largely at his
father's expense, was married and had two children of his own. Few individuals
would be stupid enough to try to enforce an outdated order. The new child
support enforcement system had presumed that every order on file was still
"open," and with no payment records had merely imagined accumulating arrearages.
In response to a question about the apparent unfairness of arbitrarily
high award levels he responded that no one involved with the child support
system understood what fairness meant and they had no interest
in trying to find out.
Yet another study showed that fully employed divorced fathers had a perfect
record of paying the child support they owed. Overall, historically fathers
paid about 80 percent and divorced fathers 90 percent of what is due under
court order. (Read Divorced
Dads: Shattering the Myths for a detailed look at results of a large
study of divorced fathers.)
The $89 billion debt figure provided in the GAO report is the OCSE's estimate
of accumulated debt over a 26 year period, averaging $3.4 billion annually
according to that estimate. Real payment problems, as opposed to those
merely imagined by enforcement program advocates are typically related
to ability to pay. The appropriate solution is to adjust court orders
to actual economic circumstances and children's needs. Increasing government
surveillance and providing private companies with access to masses of
personal information lies nowhere on the list of legitimate government
By 1990, the OCSE was 15 years old. Its irresponsible promotion built
child support enforcement into a national political obsession. Despite
the finding in New Jersey and elsewhere, there was no "Oops, sorry!" In
response to grim confirmation that the program was a huge multi-billion
dollar mistake the propaganda campaign intensified to a level probably
unequaled by any non-military campaign. By 1995, the child support enforcement
system was a bureaucratic Goliath with an annual budget of around $4 billion
and approximately 60,000 employees nationwide. Private agencies were using
the same propaganda to entice investors.
The GAO report got a few things right. There has not been a corresponding
improvement in the percent of what is ordered that is paid. They also
report correctly that fathers have had income inappropriately withheld
from their paychecks. People outside of government already know that this
is a result of inappropriate practices by government and private collection
agencies coupled with unconstitutional child support laws. (See The
Beginning of the End of Child Support Reform.)
The GAO also reports a key motivation behind the propaganda and intentional
human rights violations; "private firms charged all of their client’s
fees that averaged 29 percent of the child support collected, and half
of the private firms charged additional fees." In the cases that they
handle, somewhere around one third of the money fathers pay in court ordered
child support never reaches the custodial parent household.
If there is any way to extract an additional $89 billion from parents,
it could mean as much as $26 billion more in income for the industry.
There are people in our country who would commit mass murder for that
much money, let alone violate constitutional rights and steal from people.
Whether that potential actually exists or not is incidental. The mere
mention of that kind of money will attract the worst element, inside and
outside of government, and lead to horrendous acts.
Ten months of report preparation by the GAO on top of years of previous
experience has produced a series of sensational phrases that express the
incredible while ignoring transgression. This will likely give rise to
even more dubious aggrandizement in this year's election speeches and
congressional hearings. It will also feed the propaganda machines of special
interest groups. For a preview, see The
General Accounting Office Report on Child Support Enforcement 2002,
by the chair of the American Bar Association's child support committee
Laura Morgan. Unlike Andersen, the GAO will likely have very few papers
to shred. No publicly available report indicates that they have ever obtained
credible information about OCSE operations or their expansionist agenda.
The GAO report on child support enforcement was requested by Representative
Lloyd Doggett (D-TX).
Young, 1975, Arthur Young & Company, Detailed Summary of Findings:
Absent Parent Child Support: Cost-Benefit Analysis, Washington, DC:
Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Social and Rehabilitation
Chambers, D., 1979, Making Fathers Pay: The Enforcement of Child Support,
Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Wallerstein, J.S., and D.S. Huntington, 1983, Bread and Roses: Nonfinancial
Issues Related to Fathers' Economic Support of their Children Following
Divorce, In J. Cassetty (Ed.), The parental child- support obligation,
Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Pearson, J., and N. Thoennes, 1986, Will this divorced woman receive
child support?, Minnesota Family Law Journal.
Sonenstein, F.L. and C.A. Calhoun, 1988, Survey of Absent Parents:
Pilot Results, Paper presented at the Western Economic Association,
Braver, Sanford, Pamela J. Fitzpatrick, and R. Curtis Bay, 1988 , Non-Custodial
Parent's Report of Child Support Payments, presented at the Symposium
"Adaptation of the Non-Custodial Parent: Patterns Over Time" at the American
Psychological Association Convention, Atlanta, GA, August, 1988.
Roger F. Gay, 1992, A
Brief History of Prevailing Child Support Doctrine, in Proceedings
of the Sixth Annual Conference of the National Council for Children's
Rights, Arlington, VA, March 19-22.
F. Gay is a professional analyst and director of Project
for the Improvement of Child Support Litigation Technology. Other
articles by Roger F. Gay can be found in the Men's
Daily News archive
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