Starting in December, Texas will try something new to get parents to pay child support: withhold their vehicle registration.
The move is a controversial attempt to get more noncustodial parents to pay child support on-time and in-full. But some family and antipoverty advocates say the policy will have unintended consequences.
“If you penalize people, there are a small subset who will start paying, but I don’t think that’s the majority of the people," said Nune Phillips, a policy analyst with the Center on Law and Social Policy. “It is potentially going to make the problem worse.”
Under the new approach, if parents are at least six months late on their payments, the state Department of Motor Vehicles will refuse to renew their annual vehicle registration until they start paying again. In Texas, people can drive their cars for five days with an expired registration; beyond that time, they risk a fine of up to $200.
All 50 states already restrict, suspend or revoke driver's licenses when parents fail to pay child support -- a policy that the Obama administration has recently discouraged. But Texas would be one of the first to take the extra step of using vehicle registration as a bargaining chip. At least two other states, Iowa and Louisiana, have similar policies.
Parents who lose their vehicle registration will have a harder time making payments, said Gabriel Vasquez, a spokesman for the First Focus Campaign for Children, because it "will seriously hinder that parent from going to work and earning the money needed to pay the proper child support,” he said. “We think this policy is counterproductive.”
But Janece Rolfe, the communications director for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which is spearheading the new approach, said the state's experience with license sanctions makes her optimistic about using vehicle registration as another lever.
“Parents, faced with the likelihood of a suspended license, call us and do make a payment arrangement,” she said. (The state, however, doesn't track why a parent eventually pays late child support, so there's no evidence showing how many pay because of the threat of temporarily losing their license.)
Whether the new policy triggers an increase in collections or an uptick in unregistered vehicles will likely depend on parents’ ability to pay in the first place. Last year in Texas, Rolfe said about 20 percent of parents didn't pay any child support. According to a 2006 federal study of nine states, 70 percent of late child support payments are owed by parents who make $10,000 or less a year. For these parents, the average child support obligation equals about 83 percent of their reported income, according to the Urban Institute.
“It’s not about being a ‘dead-beat dad,'" said Rebecca Vallas, director of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "It’s about being too poor to pay.”
Refusing someone's vehicle registration, said Vallas, is just the latest example of government policies that do disproportionate harm to the poor. In the past year, the Obama administration has discouraged punitive policies like the one in Texas. A proposed federal rule requires courts to take into account people's ability to pay in setting child support payment levels and in imposing sanctions. In March, the Justice Department also wrote a letter to state and local courts encouraging them "to avoid suspending driver’s licenses as a debt collection tool, reserving suspension for cases in which it would increase public safety."
Parents in danger of losing their vehicle registration will receive notice by mail several months before the deadline. The hold on people’s vehicle registration will go away once the parent and the state arrange a payment plan. Partial payments will be enough to process the renewal application.
Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, stresses that the payment plans must be realistic "because so many people cannot work if they cannot drive."
It remains to be seen how often Texas will take this approach. But in Iowa, the Department of Health and Human Services rarely uses vehicle registration as a sanctioning tool and always looks at parents' employment and financial status first.
"This is one of the last things we will do," said Amy McCoy, an Iowa department spokeswoman. "Punishment isn't always the best route to getting payment."