Of the 2.2 million U.S. inmates, half are parents, and at least 1 in 5 has a child support obligation. For most, the debt keeps piling up throughout their imprisonment, says the Marshall Project, writing in the Washington Post. By law or by practice, most child support agencies consider incarceration a form of “voluntary impoverishment.” Parents, the logic goes, have only themselves to blame for not earning a living. That may be about to change. The Obama administration has authorized regulations that would reclassify incarceration as “involuntary,” giving parents the right to push the pause button on child support payments. The regulations are to be published early next year and implemented by states by 2017.
Congressional Republicans oppose the new policy. They say it would undercut the 1996 welfare reform act, which pressed states to locate missing fathers and bill them for child support so taxpayers wouldn't bear the full burden of their children's welfare. “I am fundamentally opposed to policies that allow parents to abdicate their responsibilities, which, in turn, results in more families having to go on welfare,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Ut.) said in June. Frances Pardus-Abbadessa, head of child support enforcement for New York City, said, “The complaint we often hear is, 'Why should incarcerated fathers, of all people, be the ones to get a break from their obligations — and at a cost to the taxpayer?' ” Administration officials and their supporters counter that billing fathers while they're in prison does little but dig them deeper into debt. “Billing poor fathers doesn't help poor mothers and kids become less poor,” said Jacquelyn Boggess of the Center for Family Policy and Practice. “All it creates is a highly indebted individual.”