In the 1980s and 1990s, the government found itself financially supporting a lot of single-parent families in which one parent was not contributing to the children’s support. Unsurprisingly, this led authorities to crack down on “deadbeat dads,” with stiff penalties for parents who didn’t pay the money they owed. And that kind of situation might have helped lead to Walter Scott’s shooting death on April 4. Like many poor men, Scott owed back child support that had incurred severe penalties, including stints in jail, and his family argues that he probably fled from the police during a routine traffic stop because he feared another arrest.
When you look at the havoc these policies wreak on the lives of poor people, it’s obvious that there’s something very wrong in the system. And yet when you try to come up with a solution that wouldn’t result in these penalties, you start to see how we got here in the first place. Shouldn’t parents support their children? Of course they should. Should the government be paying benefits for children when the mother or father could be contributing? Of course not. Benefits are for people who can’t take care of their children, not for people who don’t want to.
So you demand that parents pay child support. But if you simply set the support at a fraction of their income, you will encourage people to work off the books and hide their incomes from the court, or get back at their ex-partners by minimizing their income so as to yield very little in the way of support checks. So judges set child support at the amount that a parent could be expected to earn working a full-time job.
Naturally, it’s not enough to just mandate payment; you also have to mandate penalties, or else selfish mothers or fathers will simply refuse to pay. Punishments were set up for noncompliance, and systems were set up to automatically garnish paychecks. It all seems very fair — unless the system makes a mistake, or Mom or Dad genuinely can’t find enough work, at which point it suddenly becomes Kafkaesque. I once watched a colleague struggle through New York state’s bureaucracy, which through its own screw-up had garnished so much of his paycheck that he basically had no money for food or rent. The error took months to fully resolve, because why should they care about some deadbeat dad feeding himself?
At least he was employed, and he knew he would probably get his money back. For the very poor, demands for child support can turn into an insurmountable mountain. And the penalties can actually make it harder for them to make their payments: Scott reportedly lost a $35,000-a-year job because the state of South Carolina misdirected his checks, then jailed him for nonpayment.
I talk a lot about the problems that arise when we try to make the law take over problems that used to be handled by community norms. Communities are capable of making fine distinctions — between, say, a man who could pay but won’t and a man who is doing his best but just can’t earn enough to cover his obligations. The law is mostly capable of indiscriminate brute force, and the results are often tragic.
Yet it’s hard to see how we can get the law out of this business. Community norms were prone to failure when a parent abandoned his or her family and took off for parts unknown. And in the modern era, the breakdown of the family — and community more generally — means the ties that used to force people to take care of their children are no longer strong enough to do the job. So the government fills the gap, with laws that are nominally fair and reasonable but frequently deeply unjust.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.