Deadbeat parents bill would add red tape, agencies say

Proposed legislation denying federal assistance to parents who renege on child support payments may create administrative headaches for the government, witnesses said Wednesday during a House Government Reform Subcommittee hearing. A bill aimed at cracking down on deadbeat parents may wind up penalizing families relying on food stamps and Medicaid and could increase the red tape associated with administering those programs, according to officials from the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments. A bill introduced by Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., in March (H.R. 866) requires applicants for federal financial assistance to sign a form certifying that they are not more than 60 days delinquent in child support payments. Applicants who fail to sign such a form would be denied federal assistance. Under the proposed legislation, those who are delinquent on child support payments would have to participate in a repayment plan to get federal benefits. The bill does not define which types of federal assistance should be denied to delinquent parents. Bilirakis said agencies would have the discretion to decide that. Although witnesses supported the intent behind the bill--strengthening enforcement of child support-they expressed concern over potential risks in the proposed legislation. "Any legislation that would potentially deny food assistance to low-income households needs to be carefully considered, especially since approximately 50 percent of food stamp recipients are children," said J.B. Penn, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services at the Agriculture Department, which operates the Food Stamp program. Bilirakis said the intent of his bill is not to deny federal benefits, like food stamps or Medicaid, that help low-income families. H.R. 866 contains a "good cause" exception for parents who are unable to pay child support due to factors beyond their control. Penn said the certification process could also be expensive and difficult to run, causing more administrative headaches for state and local governments. Wendell Primus, director of income security at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said H.R. 866 would also create an undue administrative burden on state and local governments. "Implementing this bill would require a substantial investment in child support agencies' time and effort… . This time and effort would be better spent making more effective use of existing enforcement tools and providing services to help low-income non-custodial parents increase their ability to pay child support regularly," he said. Frank Fuentes, acting commissioner of the Office of Child Support Enforcement at the Health and Human Services Department, questioned the usefulness of the certification process, noting that the bill does not contain a provision for verifying an applicant's statement that he or she is making child support payments. Bilirakis said federal agencies would not be required to research an applicant's status. "The applicant for assistance must make a simple affirmative statement of compliance. The requirement will be enforced through existing provisions of federal law which establish penalties for fraud in obtaining federal financial assistance," he said. Fuentes and Penn both agreed that existing laws, including welfare reform legislation passed in 1996, provided tools to crack down on deadbeat parents. According to Fuentes, HHS collected a record $17.9 billion in child support in fiscal 2000 and the number of child support cases in which collections were made rose to 7.2 million in that same year. He said the welfare reform legislation has streamlined the establishment of paternity, computerized statewide child support collections and authorized strict penalties for delinquency. Primus agreed that current law affords several tools for enforcing child support obligations. He also cited the 1996 welfare reform legislation, and said that a law passed in 1988 requires automatic withholding of child support obligations from the paychecks of noncustodial parents. Primus said the child support collection rate has doubled since 1995 as a result of the 1996 legislation. The government spends nearly $4 billion a year in its effort to collect child support. According to Bilirakis, at least 30 million children are currently owed $50 billion in unpaid child support. He said payment is received in less than a quarter of child support cases.
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