I was just standing in line to get some information.
I wanted to ask a few questions, familiarize myself with the process and generally better understand what I might be getting myself into.
I was one person away from the front of the line, and just before the clerk called, “next,” a tall, mountain of a man staggered past me and mumbled, “Stupid b*tches, filing for child support.”
I eyeballed the room, taking silent calculations. The majority of the people in the family courthouse on Jay Street looked like me, a Black woman.
There were a few men scattered throughout the room, and virtually no one was white save for two police officers occupying a corner.
The reason the man at the clerk’s office was so disgruntled is because of a stigma that Kenese Dowdy, Esq refers to as the “broke woman’s hustle.” It's a stigma that affects the 51% of Black children in the U.S., whose parents are not co-habitating.
Dowdy is a Chicago-based attorney who practices family law with the intention of educating families to make informed choices. She explained why child support can feel like a very cut-and-dry solution for an otherwise messy problem. “[Family law courts] are trying to do something very objective, for something that is very subjective. Families are very subjective, it’s very unique. No two families are alike. And so the only thing that courts can enforce is financial payment.”
That financial payment is typically concluded by calculating the income of the non-custodial parent. In New York, for example, child support is exactly 17% of the non-custodial parent’s income for one child (slightly more for additional children). But the situation gets sticky when the payments stop.
The custodial parent and the non-custodial parent (usually the mother) will then experience two very different realities that threaten to tear apart any hope of communication or healthy family development.
When child support payments go missing, many custodial mothers are forced to sign up for state financial aid. Currently, 59% of single mothers receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Depending on the state, this is a benefit that is only available to custodial parents who participate in the child support program.
That child support is then pursued by the state to recover the funds used to provide aid. With state involvement comes interest and fees that incur each month. This also brings unnecessary disputes between parents and strain on the entire family.
Even if the mother does not file for state aid, she may still need help supporting the children. There has been a lot of debate about how child support should be used by custodial mothers. This long-standing argument helped birthed the stigma of being a “baby mama” looking for free money. We see this on a larger scale in celebrity news.
Shortly after they split in 2009, Nas was ordered to pay $50,000 a month to his ex-wife, Kelis. Reports on exact numbers vary, but of that amount, allegedly somewhere between $5,000 and $8,000 went to child support. (The rest was spousal support.)
Kelis was attacked in the media and depicted as a greedy “baby mama” out for her own financial gain. After XXL Magazine tweeted about the news, the comments were flooded with backlash about her and women in general.
But for everyday parents, the cost of raising kids is pretty basic. In the United States, it costs roughly over $14,000 per year, or just about $1,200 a month, to raise a child, according to the Department of Agriculture’s 2015 report.
One Louisiana-based mom to a 5-year-old daughter listed some of her monthly costs, “Childcare, after school care, insurance co-pays, clothes, uniforms, school supplies and food,” said Stevee-Rayne, who works as an Equity Consultant for the entertainment industry. She also added enrichment items like books and educational games, the cost of tennis, ballet and piano lessons along with the gas required to take her there. These are all items typical to any household raising at least one child, if they are expected to thrive.
Kids don’t bypass their hunger because mom and dad are having a moment. So, regardless of misfortune, the money to sustain kids will still be paid by someone. While the costs of raising kids is persistent and daily, the consequences of non-payment are as well.
For the non-custodial father, the story plays a little differently. Over 40% of the child support owed to custodial mothers by non-custodial fathers goes unpaid, according the the U.S. Census. But the reasons behind this lack of payment is often because those fathers are struggling with poverty or unemployment. One of the most affected demographics among non-custodial fathers are those who are incarcerated.
According to the National Conference of State Legislature, over 400,000 incarcerated fathers have child support cases. Until 2017, child support agencies considered incarceration to be a form of "voluntary impoverishment," as explained in an article from The Marshall Project.
As these men sat in jail, they continued to fall deeper and deeper into arrears. After Obama had incarceration reclassified as “involuntary,” parents were able to defer child support payments until they were released from jail, saving them thousands of dollars in debilitating interest. But even reduced interest doesn’t make the transition back into everyday life easy.
A little over two-thirds of states revoke or suspend licenses, even if it hinders a person’s ability to seek employment or take on parental duties. For example, if a father’s license is suspended, he would risk being arrested if he attempts to pick his child up from school. It’s a catch-22 that ultimately leaves families struggling and feuding.
Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study surveyed a sample of 5,000 families and found that 14% of the fathers who had a child support debt were jailed for that debt. That’s roughly one in seven fathers surveyed. Assuming this study is in step with national trends, this represents a cycle of destabilizing families from functioning in healthy ways.
While custodial mothers are struggling to stay afloat, non-custodial fathers are struggling to find ways to support. Attorney Dowdy says, however, that the story of absent fathers is beginning to shift, at least in her domain of Illinois. “With the rise of fathers' rights and fathers being more active,” says Dowdy, “we have seen an increase in fathers either having custody or shared custody.” Current data does show a shift in custodial fathers over the last few years, which hopefully promises a future of more co-parenting among single-parent families.
In the meantime, Dowdy says the main push has to be for communication and cooperation between parents. “I think it's harder on folks who don’t know how to communicate. People who have matured enough where they can actually communicate and it’s just about the best interest of the child, they can arrange their own child support.”
She urges families to talk among themselves, even seeking mediation as a solution to a support disagreement before things fall into the hands of the courts and irreversible debt is created.
As long as we buy into damaging stereotypes, the “deadbeat dad” and the “money hungry baby mama,” the further away we get from having meaningful conversations with each other about how to meet in the middle. At the end of the day, it’s the children in our community who ultimately lose out on necessary resources and time with their parents.
(Photo: Caiaimage/Sam Edwards)
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