More than $2 billion in child support is intercepted each...

More than $2 billion in child support is intercepted each year in the U.S. In New York, $112 million never makes it to children. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/czarny_bez

This Sunday, we acknowledge the fathers in our lives and their often-invisible sacrifices. We should demand New York State do the same by no longer seizing child support payments from families in need.

More than $2 billion in child support is intercepted each year in the United States. In New York, $112 million never makes it to children. This leaves disadvantaged families without support they need, while fathers making payments fall deeper into debt.

How does this happen? Primarily through public assistance payback and state interest charges.

When families turn to public assistance — from Family Assistance to Medicaid to foster care to (in some states) food stamps — they must file a child support order. Half of all child support cases involve some form of public assistance. The cost of those benefits is then billed to noncustodial parents as child support. Mothers have no right to this support. Some states “pass through” a small amount of these payments to families, but are not required to do so. Instead, the state takes this money to settle a debt, leaving families unsupported.

Payback provisions have been part of the U.S. child support program since its inception. But 1996 federal welfare reform legislation bolstered collections. Support debt surged from $49 billion in 1997 to $116 billion in 2021, with 70% of it owed by parents who earn less than $15,000 per year. In New York, these parents owe $7 billion. When they find a way to pay, the funds are often intercepted by federal, state, and local governments before reaching families — seizures justified as a way to get tough on absentee dads.

Our research finds that few New York parents know this is happening. Most fathers assume their payments go to mothers; most mothers assume fathers aren’t paying. Family conflict escalates as parents blame each other for not supporting their kids. When they learn of the payout chain, some fathers pay mothers directly, which angers court officials.

The second form of state debt is interest charges. Most states subject support debt to 2-12% compound interest. New York’s 9% rate causes debt to accumulate so rapidly it becomes impossible to pay back.

State officials insist that interest pushes fathers to pay their debts faster. But fathers must be able to repay those debts. Few can. We’ve found that most indebted fathers don’t understand why their debt keeps growing, even as they make payments on it. They often respond by withdrawing from the process, and their kids’ lives, out of frustration and guilt.

What can be done? New York can change its payback policies and pass through 100% of payments to parents. California and Colorado have done this, resulting in vast improvements in familial well-being. The federal government could encourage this by forgoing its share of welfare payback. It could also repeal laws that force mothers to file child support orders and relinquish their rights to subsequent payments.

New York can also waive its interest rate, especially for impoverished parents and those with histories of incarceration. New Jersey recently set its interest rate at 0%, joining states like Mississippi and Louisiana. Existing interest debt should be canceled, making repayment within parents’ reach and more money within families’ reach.

Ending these predatory state practices would prioritize the well-being of New York families. Our social safety net should not have a payback price tag. It should be there to catch families that need it. Reforming it would be a real Father’s Day gift.

This guest essay reflects the views of Lynne Haney, a professor at New York University, and Aunray Stanford, a youth specialist at ManUp! Inc. and a formerly incarcerated father of two. Both are researchers at NYU's Prison Education Program Research Lab.

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