When The Bough Breaks: Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Pay Child Support [Opinion]

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On top of being arguably one of the most destructive events to take place in the home of a married couple, divorce is, by and large, the most financially debilitating product of a couple’s split. Even if the split is amicable, the division of assets and downsizing required to create two separate households reduces wealth and increases daily living expenses.

But when children are added to the equation, financial responsibility increases exponentially. The bulk of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the custodial parent, who is usually the mother. If the parents can work out a child support agreement on their own, then involving the courts in the situation is unnecessary. Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t nearly as common as it would be in an ideal world and a third party has to step in and mandate a support arrangement.

Like it or not, the child support system exists for a reason. Launched in 1975 during President Gerald Ford’s administration, child support was established with the intention of trying to maintain the children’s standard of living. Typically, women get custody of the children and the bills that go along with it. But the gender gap wasn’t any better then than it is now. In modern times, black women only earn about 63 cents for every dollar that a man makes. Her earnings are the lowest of all groups.

Happy Black Family
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Unfortunately, the system has proven to be largely ineffective because as of 2015, there was upward of $113 billion in unpaid child support on the books. While many will argue that the system is in many ways stacked against well-meaning non-custodial parents — and there is much truth to that assertion — keep in mind that it was designed to help keep custodial parents off of public assistance. Today, even people with no reported income in states like Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas still have to pay a median monthly support payment of $217, as reported by The Urban Institute.

So what happens when non-custodial parents don’t pay? The American Psychological Association says that children who do not have basic needs met suffer from lower academic achievement, higher instances of behavioral and emotional problems, declining health, and chronic health conditions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines basic needs as housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, childcare, education, and other expenses.

The costs of rearing a child, according to the USDA, is in excess of $13,000 per year. That’s roughly $1,083 per month for one child. Even if the non-custodial parent pays $300 per month, the custodial parent must come up with $783 per month in addition to all other household expenses.

What’s worse is that the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 83 percent of all single parent families were headed by single mothers and 35.6 percent of those families were living at or below the poverty level. The annual median income for a single mother was $35,400 compared to the median income for a married couple which was $85,300 per year. Without financial support from both parents, the chances of the children being successful in the future are relatively slim.

While many non-custodial parents focus on the penalties for non-payment of child support, including loss of a drivers license, wage garnishment, restricted travel, and jail time, these pain points must be weighed against the needs of the children. It would seem that the best way to avoid the flawed, yet necessary system is to stay out of it altogether. The basic needs of the children neither change, nor do they go away. Bottom line is, parents must make the needs of the children the priority.