This year’s presidential candidates have oddly symbiotic positions on child support: Democrat Barack Obama believes more parents should pay it, and Republican John McCain paid it.
Child support collection is hardly a front-and-center issue in the presidential race, but with 15.8 million cases in the national enforcement program, it’s a compelling one for custodial parents across the country.
Of the two candidates, Obama has addressed the issue most directly, making responsible fatherhood one of his campaign’s themes and including improved child support collection in his platform. McCain’s record is longer but more muted. He also has firsthand knowledge of the system, having paid $300 a month to support his three children by his first wife, whom he divorced in 1980.
Neither campaign returned phone calls seeking comment on the issue.
Vicki Turetsky, director of family policy for the Center of Law and Social Policy in Washington, said that while child support advocates strive for nonpartisan evenhandedness, “looking at the legislation out there, Sen. Obama has legislation that speaks directly to our child support priorities, and Sen. McCain does not.”
Child support collection has improved nationally in the last decade, increasing from $14 billion in 1998 to almost $25 billion in 2007, according to preliminary data. But those improvements are threatened by a $4.9 billion cut that Congress passed three years ago, which eliminated federal matching funds for enforcement efforts, and is just now starting to make its effects known.
The funds paid for additional caseworkers and better technology, and the Congressional Budget Office estimated that cutting them would result in $24 billion less in collections over the next decade. “If the funding cut is allowed to stand, the child support enforcement program will lose ground,” Turetsky said.
Obama voted against the original bill, the Deficit Reduction Act, which cut nearly $40 billion from the federal budget by making changes welfare, child support and student lending programs. McCain voted in favor of the bill, but before the House added the provisions slashing enforcement.
Two bills in Congress would restore funding, including one introduced by Obama. The Child Support Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Washington, would place a moratorium on the 20 percent spending cut imposed by the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. Child support advocates hope it will pass before Congress recesses in late September. Obama is one of 38 co-sponsors; McCain is not.
The second bill, the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Family Act, is sponsored by Obama and Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. In addition to restoring funding, it includes provisions to promote fatherhood and healthy parenting and bars states from treating imprisonment as “voluntary unemployment.” It also ensures all collections go to families, rather than to reimburse the state for money spent on welfare payments to the custodial parent and child. (Research has shown fathers are likely to pay more when the money goes to their families, Turetsky said.)
Advocates don’t think the bill will pass during this session, but given its sponsors, it has promise. “I think it has a pretty good shot of either passing as a bill or pieces of that bill ending up in other legislation,” Turetsky said, but knowing for sure “requires me to read the tea leaves on the election.”
Unlike Obama, McCain has no clear positions staked out on the issue of child support enforcement. There’s no mention of it on his campaign or Senate Web sites, and he hasn’t introduced legislation related to it. However, he’s been in the Senate 18 years longer than Obama and so has voted on more child support bills.
In 1988 he voted in favor of the 1988 Family Support Act, which required each state to build a single, automated system for child support collection and distribution. Eight years later he supported further changes to the child support infrastructure, which were folded into the 1996 bill that overhauled welfare. The bill pressed automation requirements further, expanded states’ authority to establish paternity and toughened enforcement measures.
McCain also was in the Senate when it passed the 1998 Child Support Performance Incentive Act with unanimous consent. It established five benchmarks for good performance on child support enforcement that states needed to meet to qualify for additional federal funding.