CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)--The way Pam Lowry sees it, a lot of parents can pay child support when they want to.
Lowry, administrator of the Illinois child support enforcement division, has watched more than $200,000 roll in since last September after the state began refusing hunting and fishing licenses to anyone who owed child support. Parents who owed money paid up in order to receive their licenses, part of a multi-pronged effort to recover back payments.
"It demonstrates that people who have the means to pay will pay when the consequences are meaningful to them," she said.
There are 15.8 million cases nationally in the child support enforcement program, and according to a recent poll by the National Women's Law Center, 82 percent of female registered voters said it was "extremely" or "very important" to invest in enforcement.
The vast majority--84 percent--of custodial parents are mothers, and courts awarded child support to 61 percent of them, compared to 36 percent of custodial fathers, according to 2005 census data. Failure to pay cuts across gender lines, and less than half of all non-custodial parents met their full obligations.
Federal and state governments' efforts to step up collection in the last decade have been paying off, with revenues up to $25 billion in 2007 compared to $14 billion in 1998, according to preliminary data from the Office of Child Support Enforcement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Budget Ax Hampers Enforcement
The last decade's gains are threatened by a $4.9 billion cut passed three years ago that eliminated federal matching funds for child support enforcement. It took effect in October 2007, and some states, like Ohio, have laid off staff.
Now, two bills in Congress would restore funding.
"If the funding cut is allowed to stand, the child support enforcement program will lose ground," said Vicki Turetsky, the director of family policy for the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.
The Child Support Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., would place a moratorium on the 20 percent spending cut imposed by the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. Child support advocates hope it will pass before Congress recesses in late September.
A second bill introduced by Democrats, the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Family Act, is sponsored by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, his party's presumptive presidential nominee, and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, a leading contender for the vice presidential nomination.
In addition to restoring funding, it includes provisions to promote fatherhood and healthy parenting, and to ensure all collections go to families, rather than to reimburse the state for money spent on welfare payments to the custodial parent and child. (Research has shown fathers are likely to pay more when the money goes to their families, Turetsky said.)
Advocates don't think the bill will pass during this session but given its influential sponsors, it has promise.
"I think it has a pretty good shot of either passing as a bill or pieces of that bill ending up in other legislation," Turetsky said.
Advocates attribute the collection gains of the past decade to more staff, more efficient technology and more aggressive tactics as the three most significant reasons behind the growth in collections.
States have modernized computer systems and hired more caseworkers. Some model states, including Maine, Minnesota, Washington and Iowa, have set up administrative processes to conduct paternity tests and establish support payments, which work faster than obtaining a court order. The states work with non-custodial parents to help them meet their obligations, but those who dodge their child support payments risk having tax refunds confiscated and passport applications denied.
The U.S. Treasury Department began offsetting debtors' tax refunds in 1999 and since then has collected more than $17 billion, including $2.7 billion since January. (The department counts almost 17 million offsets since the program's inception; offsets are counted rather than individuals because sometimes a single debtor's refund will be taken in more than one year.)
About 80 passport applications are denied each day to child support debtors, according to the U.S. State Department. States reported about $40.7 million in payments in 2007 from people who wanted to receive passports, and $146 million in payments since the program started in 1998.
Obama's home state of Illinois presents perhaps the most dramatic example of improved collection. The state's child support enforcement program ranked worst in the nation in 1997 and was in danger of losing federal payments for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families as a sanction. Gov. Rod Blagojevich took office in 2002 and vowed to reform the system.
"The individual complaints have to reach a critical mass before politicians take notice, and that's what happened in Illinois," Turetsky said.
Illinois Became Model State
Illinois now has increased its collections to $1.3 billion in 2008 from $726 million in 2001, winning national recognition for its turnaround.
The state has withheld licenses, published photos of delinquent parents online and streamlined its operations.
Obama consistently voted to increase enforcement funding, toughen penalties and has made responsible fatherhood one of his campaign's themes, mentioning it most recently in June when he spoke to the congregation of Apostolic Church of God in Chicago.
Lowry, however, gives the credit to Blagojevich, saying he introduced a sense of urgency and provided more resources.
Following an internal review, the child support division updated its database, centralized customer service and abandoned time-consuming, in-person interviews with custodial parents in favor of phone and mail correspondence. With their time freed up, caseworkers could push cases into collections faster.
The division also improved its communication with employers, a critical link in the enforcement chain because they provide information needed to garnish wages. In 2005 the state set up a hotline and a Web site which allowed employers to report their new hires online, netting $47 million in collections, Lowry said.
The Illinois Legislature gave judges the power to suspend non-payers' licenses in 1996, but few court orders were actually issued, Lowry said. Then in October 2007 Blagojevich signed a law granting the Illinois secretary of state the power to suspend driver's licenses through an administrative process, which led to another $5 million in collections. The state child support enforcement office notifies parents who owe $2,500 or more that their names will be forwarded to the secretary of state's office, and if they still do not pay, their licenses are suspended 60 days later.
Lowry described the process as straightforward, timely and attention-getting. Since the law went into effect in January, 8,000 parents have paid.
"We're just happy to be doing so much better than we were," Lowry said.
Claire Bushey is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Visit her Web site at http://www.clairebushey.com.