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Analysts: Child Support Adds to Many Black Fathers' Debt Load

Hear part two of the conversation, which aired on Lake Effect on Tuesday, October 15th.

Among the financial challenges facing many of Milwaukee's black men is the disproportionate amount of debt they carry.

Though there are several factors that contribute to this debt, "Real Talk" contributor  and UWM Professor of social welfare David Pate says there's one surprising cause: child support.

Pate says child support becomes an issue when the high rate of unmarried black families - about 75 percent - and the high rate of poverty in the black community intersect.

When a mother requires economic assistance from the state using Wisconsin's W2 System, or welfare, the state requires her to participate in the child support program. She must name a father, who then is required to contribute about 25 percent of his income.

That amount can be challenging for fathers in a city like Milwaukee, where black men face high rates of unemployment.

"When they don't have a job and they have this child support debt that's clicking every day, it accumulates and it gets to be a significant debt for them and it also has significant interest attached to it," Pate says.

A break is given to low-income fathers, but Nino Rodriguez of Madison's Center for Family Policy and Practice the cut-off is about $13,000 annually - too low, in his opinion.

"The debate about well how do you handle the situation of parents with very low incomes, in one sense is really about how poor are we willing to, in terms of public policy, make these people," he says. "It's more about how far are we going to push them into poverty."

Rodriguez cites figures from the research group Wider Opportunities for Women that indicate a noncustodial father of two in Milwaukee must make about $36,000 a year in order to be able to support himself, put aside money for emergencies and retirement and support his children.

That's slightly more than twice minimum wage. But the median level of income in Milwaukee is only $33,000 a year. Couple that with the high unemployment rate for black men in the community, and many dads fall behind in their payments.

The issue, Rodriguez says, is not about these fathers not wanting to pay child support, but rather an inability to do so.

"In the focus groups we’ve conducted with several fathers in several cities including Milwaukee, Beloit here in Wisconsin, that’s a constant recurrent theme: I want to pay, I want to be involved in my kids’ life, but where’s the jobs?" he says.

Not paying child support can have severe consequences, from losing one's license to being jailed. And there are few options for getting one's required child support payment adjusted.

Dr. Gabriela Sandoval, director of Policy and Research at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in California, says often men will be able to pay at first, but then suffer a setback - losing their job or having a pay cut.

"That debt continues to climb and they can't get a revision on what child support order is," she says. "It's both lack of quality jobs that ensure the economic security of the man and his ability to pay the child support order, but also the kind of stability of those jobs over the long term."

Check back tomorrow as we discuss how debt from child support affects the whole family.