David R. Henderson  

You Didn't Pay Child Support? We'll Make it Harder for You to Work

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"No one benefits from making it more difficult for an individual who owes money to make money."

When I teach my Cost-Benefit course, I give out a problem set early in each quarter in which one of the questions is the following:

Name an activity that the government is currently engaged in that you think should be eliminated and give your reasons why. Or name an activity that the government is currently engaged in that you think should be kept and give your reasons why. Or name an activity that the government is not currently engaged in that you think the government should be engaged in and give your reasons why.

My goal is to get a quick read of how the students make an argument, bring evidence to bear, etc., and then to give quick feedback. Early in October, one of my students gave the following answer and I got her permission to post it without naming her. I've edited it slightly. Here it is:

President Obama has introduced several ideas during his presidency for increasing job opportunities, but many of them require increased spending by the federal government. One of my own ideas would require a change in state legislation and no additional outlays or additional tax credits.

In many states, people who owe back child support are at risk of losing their driver's licenses as well as their professional licenses. My brother has fallen into this trap several times over the past 5-10 years. Curiously, when his driver's license was suspended, he was denied several jobs due to his being "irresponsible" and not being able drive a vehicle. This is an obvious Catch 22 because, without a job, he cannot pay the child support or pay to reinstate his license, and he will continue to be unemployed, which, in turn, leads to lost revenue for the federal government. Although my brother has never made much money, if he had been a lawyer or doctor and lost his practicing license due to back child support, the lost revenue would have been even greater.

The government should remove this punishment for failure to pay child support. No one benefits from making it more difficult for an individual who owes money to make money. According to Wikipedia, 1,372 drivers' licenses were revoked in Tennessee in 2000. These individuals "owed more than $13 million of back child support."

I am not an expert in state law for child support nor do I know who pays what. In the case of my brother, I know the mother was still paid a portion even though he failed to make the payments. From my knowledge, the state paid her.

Suspending a driver's license has adverse effects on the individual who owes money, the custodial parent, and whoever is paying the back child support (whether it be the state or federal government). Many custodial parents rely on child support payments, and when their income falls because they are not receiving the money, the federal government loses money in two ways: first by losing the income tax revenue the custodial and non-custodial parents would have been making and second, by having to provide benefits (unemployment, WIC, etc.)

With our current economic situation, the government should focus its attention on removing federal and state rules and regulations that are counterproductive. Changing state legislation on child support laws would not wholly correct our situation, but it would at least help people obtain and keep jobs. As noted earlier that would ultimately increase the government's revenue and decrease some of the expenses that the governments pay in unemployment and welfare benefits.


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CATEGORIES: Labor Market , Regulation



COMMENTS (38 to date)
Bill writes:

Wow. A college student in California said that? :)
And in only a little over a month in Dr. Henderson's class...

Daniel Meyer writes:

To me eye, it's a naive, static analysis. She never addresses the counterfactual - what happens if you can skip out on child support with no penalty? Can't you make an almost identical argument as hers about punishing anything?

I don't think that would change the conclusion that those laws are a net negative, but it's an awfully bad habit not to check.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bill,
Thanks, Bill. I should note though that she is a military officer. I had her in class for 4 hours. I can't take a lot of credit. But I'll take some of the credit in the sense that by that point, they've already seen my anti-government views and pro-market views and some of them take the opportunity to go after something that has been bugging them. Also, by that point, I've shown them a lot of examples to illustrate the 10 Pillars of Economic Wisdom. One is that incentives matter; another is that every action has unintended consequences. I've notice that it gets them thinking about unintended consequences.
@Daniel Meyer,
She never addresses the counterfactual - what happens if you can skip out on child support with no penalty?
That's because she's not advocating "no penalty." She's advocating getting rid of this penalty.

Ross Levatter writes:

Well, it's "license to practice," not "practicing license." :-)

But it's a great piece for one's first week in an Intro Econ. class!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ross Levatter,
I'll thank you for her.

Mark Bahner writes:
She never addresses the counterfactual - what happens if you can skip out on child support with no penalty?
That's because she's not advocating "no penalty." She's advocating getting rid of this penalty.

Yes, presumably she would not necessarily be against garnishing substantial portions of the wages of those who do not pay child support.

As she writes, it is not in the interest of anyone to *reduce* a person's ability to make money, if that person owes someone else.

Brad writes:

Is it even slightly ironic that a federal employee (such as yourself) has anti-government views? (I ask only because I'm a federal worker and also share your same view of government)

My excuse to my apparent paradox is the golden handcuffs. Otherwise, I'd be gone in a heartbeat.

Daniel Meyer writes:

@Mark Bahner
I don't think garnishment counts as a punishment. If I threaten to take $10 from you unless you give me $10, you face the same consequences (from me) no matter your decision.

@David Henderson
I'll rephrase (Law and Order style :-). I argue that she can't support the claim "this penalty should be abolished" without describing a world without the penalty that's better than the current world. Her evidence only supports the claim "this license revocation punishment has some bad properties".

Put another way, she's filing a bug, not proposing a solution. And I don't think the solution is obvious, because almost all punishments share the property of making it harder to earn money.

andy writes:

It might need more argument; however this particular penalty seems to me quite counter-intuitive: the more money you make, the easier you could do without a driver's license (and the easier it is for the state to collect the money). Essentially this is a tool to punish low-income non-payers, which, coincidentally, is going to be a group with highest percentage of people actually unable to meet the payments.

Emily writes:

Wage garnishing doesn't work if the people whose wages you're trying to garnish just get paid under the table to avoid it, which some of them do. I assume this is designed to provide additional dissuasion. I don't know if the overall effects are worth it, but I agree with Daniel that this ought not be persuasive.

liberty writes:

The student makes some good points, but of course it is much easier to critique an existing policy than to suggest a better one. Obviously some punishment is needed and, as others have pointed out, most punishments will affect the person's ability to make money (and in turn will affect government revenues). So, the answer seems rather incomplete. What to do instead?

Motoko writes:

I agree with Bill.

"No one benefits from making it more difficult for an individual who owes money to make money."

Seems like it would prohibit any sort of sanctions against people who owe money. If I were an employer, I would prefer to not employ people in large debt or who owe child support because they are less likely to be stable and trustworthy. It's easy to imagine how this could be a winning strategy for me.

Thomas Boyle writes:

The use of the term "child support" was genius. As with so many "for the children" policies, the name makes it immune to criticism.

Indeed, some of the reactions here toward people whose lives are being affected by "child support" orders are a good illustration of the problem. No matter what injustice or stupidity is perpetrated against someone by the state, if it's said to be "for a child" then it must be that person's fault.

Therefore, for example, they must be an unreliable employee, etc., etc.

Neil S writes:

@Daniel Meyer - you seem to be making the assumption that suspension of licenses is the only penalty associated with failure to pay child support. From my very limited knowledge, I do not believe that is a valid assumption, in which case the student's proposed remedy is indeed a solution. Her alternatives are:
1) As is.
2) All penalties other than suspension of licenses remain as is.

She makes the argument that alternative 2 is superior to alternative 1.

Regards,
Neil

David R. Henderson writes:

@Neil S and Daniel Meyer,
My gut feel is that Neil S and my student are right, but I do agree with Daniel Meyer that to really make the case, she needs to show why (1) in Neil S's list above is right. She's shown the downside. Then she needs to show that getting rid of that penalty does not cause a bigger problem. Hard to do, by the way, when I imposed a hard upper limit of 700 words. And hard to do anyway. How would one go about it? I don't know.

ColoComment writes:

The assignment (as described) did not ask for a balanced, pro- and con- essay, nor for a full examination of all possible consequences. It asked for a premise and supporting rationale.

If Mr. Henderson had wanted a comprehensive and both-sides fully argued paper, he would have asked for that.

Don't criticize the effort for failing to provide more than was asked for.

Daniel Meyer writes:

@David Henderson wrote:


she needs to show that getting rid of that penalty does not cause a bigger problem. Hard to do, by the way, when I imposed a hard upper limit of 700 words. And hard to do anyway. How would one go about it? I don't know.

I think that's the real lesson. Figuring out policy implications is hard - so we shouldn't let ourselves be satisfied with intuitively compelling arguments.

Btw, sorry if I came across as (or actually was) harsh. I do not believe that your student is bad. Rather, I think lots of smart, compelling arguers make this kind of static analysis. It's not that different from saying "McDonald's workers don't make enough money, so we should raise the minimum wage" without considering what else might change (besides some existing workers' wages).

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Meyer,
I didn't think you thought the student is bad. Nor was she making a bad argument. It was a good argument, but incomplete.
@ColoComment,
Thanks. Yes.

dave smith writes:

This is a great effort for a student at almost any undergraduate level, but esp. for a principles student.

Here is her biggest error:

"With our current economic situation, the government should focus its attention on removing federal and state rules and regulations that are counterproductive."

Why would we wait for bad economic times to remove counterproductive rules?

ThomasH writes:

Adding funds to the 2009 stimulus package to pay up all the back child support judgements would have been a really good idea. Or now. It would help offset some of the cut in food stamps. Sen. Paul, call your office.

Vinny B. writes:

The problem with her argument is that it doesn't address how we are to incentivize minorities because of e disparate impact of the education system, fewer minorities have licenses to lose. Plus, what about undocumented immigrants? They don't have driver's licenses to lose. In the end, what she is advocating is the Republican policies of hatred towards, women, children, minorities, and migrants, and offers nothing in the debate. I have no idea why you thought this was post-worthy, but then again, I'm sure you voted for Romney.

Carl Pham writes:

What's wrong with treating it like any other judgment for debt? I fail to see why owing "child" support -- which is in fact merely income support to the other parent -- falls into a much harsher category than any other way in which one party might owe another money. A necessity for unusually compelling remedies is not obvious to me.

Indeed, it reeks of vicousness. If one parent chooses to unilaterally break a marriage and co-parenting contract, ordinary contract law (and common sense unclouded by beta White Knight mating displays) suggests that the fault of any impoverishment of the childrens' circumstances lies with the moving party. Personally, I think the petitioner/plaintiff in a divorce action should be ipso facto ineligible for child support, and, should that render her economically unable to support the children, ineligible for custody.

I have no objection to no fault divorce, but no responsibility divorce is contemptible, an open invitation to irresponsibility. You'd think a primary goal of government ought to be to encourage responsible decision making, particularly among the poor, who are most likely to suffer from its lack.

Jeffersonian writes:

Appropo of nothing. I believe that if one was married and in a marriage that produced children he (or she) has a responsibility to provide for those children. If one is single or in a "living arrangement" that responsibility becomes much more tenuous.

I work with a man who fathered a child as the result of a one night stand. He is currently being bankrupted by the state to support a daughter who he has only barely met(she is 13 yrs old) and with whom he has had no contact because of the actions of the mother. He is being taken to court by the mother to raise his child support obligation because he got a second job to earn the money to pay his "obligations".

He earns near 20 dollars an hour and takes home less that $200.00 dollars a week already. He owes money to an ex-wife as well for child support also.Tell me where the justice is that he should be the sole support for the out-of-wedlock daughter he has when the mother refuses to get a job of any sort. I say he has no, that's right zero, obligation to support that daughter as he had no input in the decision of whether or not she was born other than the act of sex, which may or may not result in a pregnancey. The mother should have known whether or not she was in estrus at the time and declined the oportunity for sex. I don;t care if you hate me for that statement, but history and evolution have proven that the woman is in complete control of reproduction. He is being punished as an unwitting fathter and she is being rewarded as an irresponsible and unemployed mother. She knew the risks. She chose poorly. She is the one who should suffer the cosequence of her poor decision.

Javier writes:

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Michael writes:

One possibility would be to require a specific finding, supported by evidence, that the non-payment is due to unwillingness to pay rather than inability to pay, before suspending a driver's license.

The role of a judge hearing a child support matter is to do what is in the best interest of the child. Suspension of the father's driver's license for nonpayment does not advance the child's best interest if the father is willing to pay, but unable.

If the father is able to pay but not willing, then suspension of his driver's license creates an incentive to pay. But it is useless (at best) to give someone an incentive to do something they can't do.

charlesb writes:

Personally, I would eliminate the child support requirement, instead linking child support to visitation rights.

If no child support is paid, no visitation rights.

If child support is paid, visitation cannot be denied.

- On a month by month basis.

In no case would the state pay child support benefits, which winds up creating another welfare farce that encourages the breakup of families by offering women a financial incentive to marry, have children, and then divorce.

- Problem solved.

Brain Macker writes:

@Daniel Meyer
"I don't think garnishment counts as a punishment. If I threaten to take $10 from you unless you give me $10, you face the same consequences (from me) no matter your decision."

You accuse her of being naive? You're the naive one. Do you even understand what a punative fine is? It's in addtion to any restitution. In this case you threaten to garnish $20, a $5 extra punative fee, a $4 restitutive fee to pay for the extra court costs, and a $1 administrative fee. Then there's also castration.

I think she's just allowing for a modicum of intelligence in the reader in thinking up alternatives. Use your imagination, but it is just plain naive to think she was arguing for no punishment. No where did she state that.

Your comments are inadequate in many other ways. Please think before posting.

Joe H writes:

I have seen this problem "up close and personal". A friend, who is a craftsman/artist and makes a very meager income, has gone through this (and is still going through it). He tried to make the CS payments, but consistently fell behind. He simply didn't make enough money to meet the court's demand.

After his driver's license was taken, he found he had to drive anyway to try to continue as best he could. That included not only trying to make a living, but taking some of the burden off of his ex by picking up his son and taking him to various destinations (he was also trying to be a good dad to his son).

Not surprisingly, he was caught, and incurred significant additional penalties, including a very brief time in jail.

As friends who had collectively tried to do what we could to help him (and still do - he's currently living with me), many of us were profoundly troubled by the counterproductive public policy that has become such a catch 22 for him.

David R. Henderson writes:

@dave smith,
That's not an error. In no part of her piece did she say that we shouldn't reverse counterproductive regulations during good times.
"If A, then B" does not imply "If not A, then not B." You've committed the fallacy of denying the antecedent.

Jimbo writes:

Sorry dudes! If you have sex with a woman, there is the possibility of a child. Somebody has to pay for that child. Who should do it, the people who had sex that produced the child or the taxpayer? As a taxpayer who already supports his own wife and children, I say the ones who actually committed the sex act that led to the creation of the child. Guys who have a problem with this should use condoms or get a vasectomy. Shut up and pay the child support and be glad the courts don't make you change the kids diapers!

Bill writes:

Wow. A college student in California said that? :)
And in only a little over a month in Dr. Henderson's class...

James writes:

David: What your student points out is only a symptom of a more general problem. When the government is in the business of resolving disputes, the people making the decisions generally have no actual incentive to make those decisions well. If a judge in the family court makes a decision that hurts all the people affected by their ruling, not a single bad thing will ever happen to that judge as a result.

Of course there is a very simple solution: Make the family court system opt-in. Let people sign some form in advance to indicate that they want family courts to have authority over custody, alimony and child support issues. Those people who believe family courts provide a valuable service could find partners who share this belief and require that their partners must opt in to the family court system before they agree to marry or reproduce. Those who believe otherwise could also act accordingly.

Jay writes:

There are so many laws which are unjust. We have to ask ourselves how did we end up in a situation where we have ridiculous laws such as this "debtor prison" law - which were abolished in America more than 100 years ago?

The answer is strange. It is in a large part due to feminists and their misandrist ideology of demonising men as "dead-beat dads". Men already get about 1/20th the compassion and sympathy that women get, therefore if it is men suffering nobody much cares unfortunately. These misandrist feminists take advantage of this to help lobby for and create more and more laws imprisoning innocent men.

Which movement is actively opposing this ridiculous law? - the most libertarian of all political movements - The Mens Human Rights Movement.

Mark Bahner writes:

"@Mark Bahner
I don't think garnishment counts as a punishment. If I threaten to take $10 from you unless you give me $10, you face the same consequences (from me) no matter your decision."

So garnish wages at a rate 1.5 times that which was owed. Then it *is* punishment, but it's not punishment that reduces the wage earner's ability to earn wages.

Mark Bahner writes:
Adding funds to the 2009 stimulus package to pay up all the back child support judgements would have been a really good idea. Or now. It would help offset some of the cut in food stamps. Sen. Paul, call your office.

No, Sen. Paul, read your Constitution (which you swore an oath to uphold). You will find, just like James Madison (aka, "The Father of the Constitution"):

“I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Erik S writes:

A number of people make the following argument:
"what happens if you can skip out
on child support with no penalty?"

But that ignores the one of the fundamental
problems, which is the rise of what Stephen
Baskerville calls the "divorce industry" and
all the parasites associated with it…

To hear it from Stephen, author of "Taken Into Custody"
(The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family)

http://no-pasaran.blogspot.com/2008/06/witch-hunts-in-contemporary-america-is.html

A look at the government machinery reveals that [child support] was created not in response to claims of widespread nonpayment but before them, and that it was less a response to "deadbeat dads" than a mechanism to create them.

… Ostensibly scientific feminist scholarship is similarly revealing. Fathers trying to see their children following unproven accusations is described as "further violence" and the "threat of kidnapping" … This is not violence; it is fathers trying to recover their children through the same legal process by which their children were removed and which, in most cases, they themselves did not initiate.

… it is important to understand that "custody" is not the right to parent one's children; it is the power to prevent someone else from parenting his children and to marshal the penal apparatus — courts, police, and jails — to ensure he stays away from them.

… Men who are truly intent on abandoning their progeny have little difficulty in disappearing; it is fathers who want to see their children who allow themselves to be snared. This may reveal the cruelest and most cynical side of the child-support machine: its willingness to use a father's love for his children to plunder and destroy him.…

… child support is no longer primarily a method for requiring men to take responsibility for the offspring they have sired and then abandoned, as most people are led to believe. Overwhelmingly it is now a regime whereby "a father is forced to finance the filching of his own children."

… the media will go to any lengths to avoid admitting that we are in a massive epidemic of government-sponsored child stealing.

… Do these questions matter? Yes, they do matter, because in these questions lies the difference between a father who is pursued because he has abandoned his children and a father who is pursued because he refuses to abandon his children.

Daublin writes:

To be sure, a guy shouldn't just be able to run off and ignore a child. Deadbeat dads deserve to have some of their money extracted and redirected to the child.

At the same time, I've more often seen cases like Erik describes, where it's simply vicious. The woman initiates a divorce, gets child support, keeps the child to herself 90% if not 100% of the time, and goes on to marry a new guy.

It really adds insult to injury. Not only did the father lose his wife and child to another man, but he is expected to pay for it.

Nobody says anything because the guy is already basically beaten, so nobody wants to be seen defending him.

Kirk Taylor writes:

In my experience, I've found that custody and child support is also a mechanism by which states try to get money flowing into their state from other states. Check into custody cases from across state lines, they invariably find for the resident of the state custody is being fought in. Years ago this created a cottage industry for lawyers who would advise clients to find some sort of "neglect" when their child was visiting and sue for custody in the home state of the current non-custodial parent. Almost always a win - the state takes care of their citizen, gets more residents, and income coming in from out of state.

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