Politicians today are engaged in a spirited debate about giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants so they can drive to work. But somehow the law has already decided that a divorced father, who might have fallen behind in child-support payments, should be punished by forfeiting his license.
The New York Times recently exposed the ridiculous case of truck driver Donald Gardner, who was left penniless after a 1997 car accident put him in the hospital for three years. When he tried to return to work, he found that the state had taken suspended his driver's license because he owed $119,846 in child support.
The Times reported that, as of 2003, fathers allegedly owed $96 billion in child support. However, 70 percent is owed by men who earn less than $10,000 a year or have no wage earnings at all, so we have a $3 billion government bureaucracy working to get blood out of a turnip.
The most bizarre part of the system is that child-support payments are not required to be spent on children and are not based on any estimates of their needs or expenses. Support orders come from court-created formulas based on the income of the father, while the mother is allowed to treat child support like any other entitlement, such as welfare or alimony.
Although there are no official statistics, it is estimated that more than 100,000 fathers are jailed per year for failing to make child-support payments. Another perverse feature of the system is that child-support payments are in no way related to whether a father is allowed to see his children or whether his visitation rights are enforced.
Debtors' prisons were common in colonial times, but they were abolished by the new United States government, one of the great improvements made on English law. Then the new nation adopted bankruptcy laws to allow people a fresh start when they are overwhelmed by debt. However, child-support debts cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
The Bradley Amendment, named for former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.Y., takes us back to the cruel days of debtors' prisons. It requires that a child-support debt cannot be retroactively reduced or forgiven, and states enforce this law no matter what the change in a father's income, no matter if he is sent to war or locked up in prison, no matter if he is unemployed or hospitalized or even dead, no matter if DNA proves he is not the father, and no matter if he is ever allowed to see his children. Charles Dickens famously said, "The law is an ass."
Phyllis Schlafly is a national leader of the pro-family movement, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Feminist Fantasies.
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