DYING FROM CHILD SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT
May 30, 2003
by Roger F. Gay
The child support enforcement program is a disease that has probably caused more suffering and death than any other government program. It was introduced by Congress in 1975 and has been engineered into a weapon of mass destruction in the years since. Despite sound evidence of destructive economic, social, and political effects and repeated cases of suicide linked to insufferable conditions created by current practices, politicians and administrative representatives continue to satisfy themselves with less than convincing denials, a few false and misleading statistics, and the claim that "it's for the children."
Various protests have generally been ignored, even when they are so serious as to cause harm to protesters. Potential danger lies in a particular form of protest: the hunger strike. The problems with child support enforcement, which were internationalized during the 1990s, have been met with occasional hunger strikes in several countries. Daniel Chang, a Chinese immigrant, has been the most recent to stage a hunger strike in the United States. His strike began on May 15th in Piscataway, New Jersey. Dr. Chang holds a Ph.D. in computer science and has a professional job. Despite federal involvement based on a pre-existing federal involvement in welfare, this case has nothing to do with the public welfare system.
The federal child support enforcement program is not for the children of course. The money spent on children is just as green whether paid under state rules or through a federal program. The incentive is the billions of dollars that Congress spends each year to keep people interested. States receive "incentive funds" in proportion to the amount of child support collected. In order to maximize the amount of funds they receive, states enrolled as many men as they could and arbitrarily increased the amount they were ordered to pay. All payments are counted as "collections." Everybody in government understands the scheme. It's pork. It's a brand of corruption older than government itself. A prospective enemy was demonized ("dads"), and people were called to arms against them; pledging their money and loyalty to the cause.
My early introduction to the child support enforcement system included a case in which a chiropractor had been involved in a serious auto-accident that resulted in brain damage. He was unable to continue his practice, and his savings was eaten up by medical bills. The state enforcement agency echoed the prevailing political sentiment – "There is no excuse for not paying child support," and began confiscating social security benefits in an effort to satisfy the very high payments that had been set in light of his previously high income. The crippled man was left without sufficient income to pay for rent and food, and certainly without sufficient funds to pay a lawyer to attempt to straighten things out.
The reason for such harsh measures is the federal funding system. States receive money in proportion to the amount of child support "collected." Taking away social security benefits may have been worth $10 a month to the state; a little bit toward paying the salary of the collection agent who was robbing him of his sustenance.
This is the system that Dr. Chang is fighting. It isn't about reducing welfare expenditure. The money he owed is for support of his daughter from his first marriage. She is now 20 years old (an adult) and studying pharmacy at Rutgers University. He also has a 12 year old daughter from his second marriage. A well-paid professional, the austerity of his home and lifestyle is testimony to payment levels that are out of proportion to caring for children. Someone in his economic position would normally be able to raise two children in reasonably good style.
That judges have become beneficiaries in the enforcement scheme, pay linked to outcome, is a direct attack on judicial independence and therefore our Constitution – in effect, an attack against the United States. American colonists raised this same issue in the Declaration of Independence; complaining about the King of Great Britain and his manipulations of democracy and the rule of law. "He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries."
Dr. Chang has only protested once before. In June, 1989 he marched with others in New York City to protest the killing of peaceful protesting students and others by the Chinese government. The only pattern seems to be a loathing of government oppression. And this time it's personal. He has been jailed three times (once for 108 days) and has no drivers license due to child support debt. This represents two of the practices fathers so often complain about. Atop arbitrary, unjustifiably high child support orders, often the reason for debt to begin with, spending time in jail and being unable to drive make earning an income to pay child support (and support oneself) ever so much harder. The alleged success of such practices is really a few instances in which friends and family, who do not owe child support, have pitched in to pay debts. That led at least one judge to claim that the practices worked for him. By and large, the expanded practice has left tens of thousands of fathers without licenses and an untold number with unlimited jail time; often until debt is paid, with no way to pay the debt while in jail.
Dr. Chang's experience is one that has been repeated many times across the country over the past fifteen years. Sheriff's deputies literally kicked in the door to his apartment and arrested him at gunpoint - weeks after he had made necessary payments. Employees at the Middlesex County Child Support Department had refused to help weeks earlier after his employer had missed a child support payment and miscalculated another. His employer is charged with making payments after deducting them from his pay, a common practice since the early 1990s. Dr. Chang points out that his employer is generally cooperative with the agency, but had made errors after an end-of-year payroll conversion. He contacted the child support agency and sent the money himself, but that didn't stop the violent enforcement action weeks later.
Give me liberty, or give me death! Or as Dr. Chang puts it: "It is better to die once than live a thousand humiliations." Isn't this just the sort of thing that led to the American Revolution? Is it the kind of government behavior that led to student protests in Tienanmen Square? It's probably deeper than that.
The assault on a man's life typically begins with a mother who decides to "liberate" herself from marriage, simply dealing a father out of his own personal and family life. The process is exceptionally easy. The government has been dedicated to helping women "liberate" themselves from marriage for decades. Once extricated, women often move on to new relationships, taking his children, a portion of his property and future income with them. The engineering of a new life quite often involves keeping the old one (the ex-husband) at an extreme distance, totally disengaged from his own children.
The process and its effects involve the deepest emotions there are. But to that we have now added a government operation designed by people who are using the situation to steal. They're stealing money from these very same fathers, often making mere existence difficult. They are doing it in order to steal money from taxpayers who are paying for the system in proportion to the amount of money taken from fathers. Finally, as if that isn't enough, they're stealing freedom and even life.
Dr. Chang hopes to force a conclusion to his ordeal within one month of the start of his protest. If he can, he will eat again and return to work. He has two weeks vacation and has arranged for a two week extension. This defines his goal of – in effect – winning an argument within a month. His water and salt diet is dangerous, especially if it continues for long. Several people have met with him, and have encouraged him to stay alive. When he began his strike on May 15th, he weighed 166 pounds. When I last received an email message from him, May 28th, his weight was 16 pounds less - 150 pounds.
Dr. Chang has vowed to continue until his demands are met. They are as follows (in his own words).
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