Some topics always generate passionate debate – contentions issues relating to deeply held personal beliefs that cannot be shifted by reason. Abortion is one such topic, in the news again recently, and discussed in Julie’s post here at The Standard. Like the burden of bearing and raising a child, the burden of the anger that this debate generates falls mainly on women – mothers. Fathers get a pretty easy time of it on abortion. But where they take a turn in the front line is the issue of child support:
Absent dads owe billions in unpaid child support
Inland Revenue is owed more than $1.8 billion by parents who have shirked their financial responsibilities. Figures released to the Sunday Star-Times by Inland Revenue show that of the 176,500 people liable for child support, 121,500 are behind in their payments. Together they owe more than $560 million in unpaid child support and $1.2b in late payment penalties and interest. The top five defaulters alone have an outstanding bill of $5.7m.
“It’s a national disgrace,” said Bob McCoskrie, national director of lobby group Family First. “What it communicates is that people can go around and make children and then show next to no responsibility in terms of their well-being,” he said. “You have to pay up for the consequences of your choices. If we enforced the consequences, then maybe people would think more seriously about conceiving a child they have no intention of showing any responsibility for.
If that was all there was to the story I might find myself agreeing with Bob McCoskrie, and that would be a cold day in hell. So let’s read a little deeper:
Revenue Minister Peter Dunne is not ruling out changes to the system. “The problem is not child support itself. We actually collect 90% of the principal of child support [the money that goes directly to the child] that is owing. Where the debt problem arises is with unpaid penalties on that principal,” Dunne said.
That puts things in a slightly different light. 90% of the money due to kids is getting through. Of course we want it to be 100%, but 90 isn’t a bad start. On the basis of this article what these “absent dads” appear to be less keen on paying is penalties and interest – and that’s a lot easier to sympathise with.
So, no danger of agreeing with McCoskrie after all. There is no message “that people can go around and make children and then show next to no responsibility”. The overwhelming majority of obligations are being met and there is no case for trying to demonise absent dads in general. By all means pursue the remaining 10% of funding due to children with all vigour. Improve and automate the collection system and make sure that as near as possible to every cent gets through to the kids. Then you won’t need a punitive penalty system. Write off the existing penalty debts – they were never real. My guess is that there will be higher voluntary compliance with a system that is seen to be rigourous, open and fair, with all money collected going to children.
And as to the perception of responsibilities – punitively punishing absent fathers is trying to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. Much more effective to work for prevention – an advertising and information campaign. Educate us all on what the consequences are if fathers walk out on, or for whatever other reason cannot be with, their kids.