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When parents go to jail, their child support bills can pile up

When a New York State parent paying child support suddenly becomes unable to pay, they may be able to go to court to get their obligation reduced or eliminated. Often, a job loss, new disability or other unfortunate incident is to blame.

In some cases, however, the noncustodial parent cannot pay their child support because they are behind bars. The Marshall Project notes that of the 2.2 million people in jail or prison in the U.S., at least 20 percent have been ordered to pay child support. But while in prison, earning more than a token income is virtually impossible. Essentially, many of these parents are forcibly impoverished, at least until they are let go.

However, many states consider incarceration to be “voluntary impoverishment,” likely on the theory that people convicted of a crime are responsible for their own fate. They continue to bill their prisoners for child support, often putting parents thousands of dollars in debt by the time they get out.

It is probably true that children should not be financially deprived because one of their parents is incarcerated. But critics say that billing people for child support when they are physically unable to earn money to pay for it does not improve a child’s financial situation, and only burdens their parent with debt.

In reaction to this controversy, the Obama administration has proposed new regulations that would consider incarceration to be “involuntary impoverishment.” This would mean that a child support obligation could be paused while the parent is serving his or her sentence.

This could become the law of the land as soon as 2017. Some lawmakers oppose the change, saying that it contradicts the 1996 welfare reform law, which encouraged states to track down parents behind on child support, in order to save money on welfare programs.

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