Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

“Deadbeat” vs. “Deadbroke” Dads

A recent National Public Radio story shed light on the many low-income fathers across the nation who owe part of the country’s collective $113 billion in unpaid child support debt. The story presents a contrast to the prevailing narrative of “deadbeat” fathers who refuse to work, evade parental obligations, or hide money to avoid supporting their children. It introduces us instead to fathers who do what they can to be good parents to their children, but who face systemic barriers to steady, gainful employment, such as stints in prison and resulting criminal records, or a lack of formal education.

Indeed, research cited by NPR shows that the majority of child support debt is owed by dads who earn less than $10,000 per year. In urban areas, many fathers struggling under these burdens are minorities, compounding the structural barriers that they face in getting on their feet.

Recently, the Obama administration has proposed changes to child support regulations, notably, provisions to prevent child support debt from racking up while parents are incarcerated and rules to ensure that child support orders are based on parents’ actual — not imputed — income. If enacted, these regulations could provide protection and relief to very low-income fathers and help prevent the accrual of thousands of dollars of uncollectible debt.

At the Child Support Resource Center, located at the D.C. Superior Courthouse, attorneys from Legal Aid and Bread for the City provide legal services to low-income mothers and fathers with pending child support cases. In our work, we regularly encounter fathers facing thousands of dollars in debt that accumulated during periods of unemployment and incarceration. It is often difficult for attorneys to help parents make their way out of this debt. Changes to federal rules will give courts, attorneys, and most importantly, parents, more flexibility in setting realistic child support orders that fathers can actually pay and that mothers and children can rely on.

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