How Not to Do Child Support Amnesty

Child support amnesty programs make sense. One can applaud the initiative of states like Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina, and Michigan who have set up incentives that encourage delinquent parents to pay up and avoid arrest, jail time, and driver’s license suspension.

And Michigan’s child support director gets it. Marilyn Stephen, director of the Office of Child Support in the Michigan Department of Human Services, says “There is no dollar that runs faster back to communities than the child support dollar. It pays the rent. It buys groceries and it keeps families off other social service programs . . . it can mean the difference for family self-sufficiency.”

Unfortunately, the approach Michigan is taking seems unlikely to succeed in any meaningful way, because it requires the delinquent parent to pay up IN FULL by the end of the year. As economists have pointed out, about 80 percent of delinquent child support is owed by people at or below the poverty line, and the average child support delinquency is more than $10,000. Tell someone who makes minimum wage to pay more than $10,000 within three months, and you might as well tell him to fly to the moon and back AND drag Ruben Studdard behind him.

A program like Michigan’s will produce some payments, but they’re likely to come from the wealthiest of the delinquent payors, the ones who have access to savings or who can just borrow a few more thousand on the home equity line. By contrast with Michigan, Virginia structures its amnesty program to encourage delinquent payors to set up a realistic payment plan.

North Carolina has an annual Child Support Amnesty Week. The collections from Amnesty Week have increased each year, as more parents learn how it works.