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Child Support Relief Coming for Incarcerated Parents

In the last days of the Obama administration, regulators quietly ease the child support burden on parents in prison.

by Eli Hager, The Marshall Project

Squeezing in an executive action just a month before president-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, on December 20, 2016 the Obama administration quietly unveiled a new federal regulation that will allow incarcerated parents to lower their child support payments while they are in prison.

The new rule, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, requires states to notify all parents incarcerated for more than six months of their right to ask the child support agency for a temporary reduction in payments.

As The Marshall Project reported in October 2015, many states have long considered incarceration a form of “voluntary” impoverishment, and therefore not a valid excuse for missing child support payments. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.1]. But jobs in state prisons pay a median wage of about 20 cents an hour, meaning that most incarcerated parents cannot feasibly pay the full amount of their child support obligation – and end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt by the time they get out. (The best estimates indicate that one in five prisoners in the U.S. has a child support order.)

The new rule, said Vicki Turetsky, commissioner of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, is intended to keep these mostly-poor fathers out of severe debt so they are less tempted back into crime after they are released.

Republicans in Congress, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), introduced legislation in June 2015 to block Obama’s new regulation, arguing that it would lead to more single mothers on welfare, which would be a greater burden on taxpayers. But the bill has stalled.

The incoming Trump administration could now resume efforts to undo the regulation, which also includes measures to calculate what poor parents owe based on their actual income and to reduce the uncollectible accumulated debt that forces many fathers to go underground.

But to do so, the new Health and Human Services Department under nominee Tom Price would have to go through the same extensive rulemaking process the Obama administration did – which took more than two years.

Ed. Note: The federal child support rule change, which amends 45 C.F.R. 303, becomes effective January 19, 2017.

This article was originally published by The Marshall Project on December 20, 2016; it is reprinted with permission from the author, with minor edits.