Dead broke, not deadbeat: Baltimore rethinks welfare policy
Aid can create a wedge between mothers and fathers, experts say, and Maryland officials are trying to change that
Christopher and Melinda were participants in a program, which the state of Maryland will be expanding this month, designed to strengthen families.Courtesy CFUF
BALTIMORE — When Darnell met his sister's friend Charlotte after his release from prison in 1997, he was sure God had sent her. While locked up, he'd often prayed for divine help.
Darnell and Charlotte had their first date at an IHOP. (They declined to provide their last names because of privacy and legal concerns.) Within six months, he told her he wanted to get married.
At first Charlotte didn't think much of the proposal, but Darnell went ahead and put the liquor on layaway. When he could finally afford to rent a hall, he cooked all the food for the reception, and they did what no one else they knew was doing: They got married.
Within a few months, Charlotte was pregnant with their first child. Darnell, 29, already had a daughter, whom he was supporting, and Charlotte, 25, a year-old baby girl. She also had custody of a young cousin, who lived with her and the baby in a two-room apartment in one of the city's public-housing projects. Charlotte used to send her cousin to the barber when she had spare money, but when Darnell came into her life, he would take the boy every week.
Charlotte had been supporting herself and the two children with the $824 she made each month patching together a 40-hour workweek at KFC, Value City and a local clothing store called Lovely Ladies. She and the children also received food stamps and other aid through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal program that provides cash assistance, Medicaid and job training to parents living in poverty. But Darnell’s income — about $1,750 a month from a construction job — was too high for the new family to continue receiving help through TANF, let alone additional aid once the new baby arrived. (To qualify today in Maryland, a household of four must earn less than $755 per month, or $9,600 per year.) A complicated pregnancy, meanwhile, meant Charlotte had to quit working.
With just Darnell's earnings, they say, they didn't have enough to get by. The couple had deferred living together until they could afford a bigger place, and with the baby on the way, they were squeezed even further. Now Charlotte and Darnell's marriage — what they most prided themselves on — became, in a sense, a liability.
It holds tremendous promise. If it works, it will redefine policy.
Maryland Department of Human Resources
When Charlotte applied for additional benefits from Maryland's Department of Human Resources (DHR), the state agency that administers TANF and other welfare programs, she lied about being married so that Darnell's income would not be considered in her application. At the same time, she had to register Darnell as the father of her new baby with a second DHR agency, the Child Support Enforcement Administration, in order to qualify for additional cash assistance.
In many states, including Maryland, the parent seeking assistance — typically the mother — must identify the other parent to the child-support agency so it can begin to collect payments owed to the state. (Darnell, for example, owed about $400 each month.) This is intended to offset the costs of food stamps and other aid the state pays out. Missed payments accrue in arrears. The state can collect that money by garnishing wages, intercepting tax refunds, suspending drivers’ or professional licenses and other measures. (A 2012 Maryland law, however, now stops child-support debt from accumulating when parents in arrears are in prison.)
Thus, a potential conflict was introduced into Charlotte and Darnell's relationship: the benefits she gained as a result of his vulnerability to the state.
"I always thought that was crazy," Darnell says. "We shouldn't have to say we were separated to get help. If anything, they should have helped us stay together. They are saying they want the father involved but won't help you if the father is involved. That is backwards."
These are the unintended consequences, some government officials and social-service experts say, of programs built on an outdated paradigm. Welfare institutions were set up historically to aid single parents — usually a woman widowed or abandoned by a man who has refused to provide child support — not couples like Darnell and Charlotte.
But Maryland is about to try something new.
Whereas state welfare policy wasn't fashioned to serve Charlotte and Darnell as a family, a nonprofit in West Baltimore, the Center for Urban Families (CFUF), treated them as one. In 2010, after years of struggling to maintain their marriage, they enrolled in the center's Couples Advancing Together (CAT) program.
In Baltimore, where fathers are already in short supply, in part due to high incarceration rates, CFUF seeks to help couples stay together or at least effectively raise their children together. The organization offers a mix of programs that focus on job training, relationship-skills building, parenting and financial counseling. The group also works with men who owe child support to craft with DHR a viable payment plan, including forgiving or alleviating arrears. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to expand CAT’s program that, starting this month, could put the state at the forefront of potentially innovative policy.
"It holds tremendous promise," says Thomasina Hiers, deputy secretary of programs at the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "If it works, it will redefine policy."
Child support debt
In four Baltimore ZIP codes where CFUF works, parents owe a total of $111 million in child-support arrears. That's about a quarter of the city's total. In those ZIP codes, DHR jointly with CFUF identified 4,642 cases (9.4 percent of the total caseload for the city) in which individuals owe an average of about $130 per month. In 68 percent of those cases, DHR has never received a single payment.
But while the measures the state can take to recover that money are intended for deadbeat dads, men caught up in the system in inner-city Baltimore are often dead broke. DHR officials say those in arrears are mostly parents who would pay but cannot — the unemployed, underemployed and incarcerated — not those who can pay but won't.
"It takes a four-legged stool to get out of this," said Peter Beilenson, who served as Baltimore's health commissioner from 1992 to 2005. The community needs "decent housing; public schools that can turn out kids ready for college; access to healthy homes (lead-paint-free), healthy food and health care; livable-wage jobs in the community. None of those occur in huge swaths of Baltimore city."
In addition to discouraging low-income fathers from entering the job market because their wages can be garnished, child-support debt can ultimately alienate the father from the mother — then from his child — rather than giving him an incentive to be an active participant in the child's life.
"In the beginning, everybody is like, 'I have this partner, she's wonderful and she's pregnant, and I'm ready to be here,'" says Otis Buckson, manager of the CAT program. "But then life happens. The father realizes there are some responsibilities that (he) can't comply with. Most of it is financial: She needs the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children federal-assistance program). But he has to go downtown, register and have a child-enforcement case against him. That might be one of the reasons he backs up and says, 'If you are going to take me downtown, how can we be together? And if I’m here supporting the child and yet I'm still having these arrears building up?'"
An outdated model?
At play in Baltimore.Patrick Semansky/AP
Social-service experts say these child-support policies treat men this way because they are based on another era’s notions of family.
"The reason the system looks bizarre is because it was originally constructed around a conceptualization of who single moms were in 1974," says Ronald B. Mincy, director of Columbia University's Center for Research on Fathers, Children and Family Well-Being.
In 1974, when the state-federal child-support enforcement program was created, two-thirds of children in single-parent homes were children of divorced couples, according to Mincy. The child-support system then was geared toward helping women who went on welfare after they divorced and their husbands left, taking the family’s source of income with them. Social-welfare policies were designed to force fathers to provide financial support for their children.
But many of today's couples are not broken up, even if they are unmarried. Most unmarried parents in the U.S. today — more than 80 percent — are in a romantic relationship with their co-parent when the child is born and expect to eventually wed, says Sara McLanahan, director of the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton University and principal investigator of a large national survey, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. Of that 80 percent–plus, approximately 51 percent are living together and 31 percent are romantically involved but living apart, as Charlotte and Darnell were after they were first married.
Many of today's impoverished parents, however, are unable to establish long-term, stable unions or co-parenting relationships. The term "fragile families" emerged in the 1990s to describe this demographic. Researchers used the term "family" to counter the stereotype that such relationships were casual and "fragile" to capture the idea that these partnerships face greater risks than those of more traditional, higher-income families. This fragility, says McLanahan, is rooted not only in poverty and ill-considered government policies that penalize couples for marrying, but in widespread acceptance in some communities of single motherhood and demographic and psychological factors that make it difficult to maintain healthy relationships.
Charlotte's and Darnell's parents illustrate the pressures that poor families face. Her mother was 15 when Charlotte was born. Her biological father was an addict. For most of her life, Charlotte's mother lived with another man, a "kind" person whom Charlotte calls a "functional junkie." Both died from HIV-related illnesses. Darnell’s parents were never married. His father died years ago, and his mother works in a hospital cafeteria.
According to CFUF, the absence of fathers, meanwhile, is damaging to the entire community — socially, economically and psychologically. Many believe it contributes to Baltimore’s high crime rate.
When shootings in the city spiked last summer — in a single weekend 20 people were shot — many grassroots efforts sprang up, organized by men asserting that absence from their children's lives was partly to blame for the violence. For months, dozens of men marched through Baltimore streets as part of recurring 300 Men Marches and weekly Enough Is Enough walks, initiated by Nick Mosby, a city councilman.
"My mom was my everything," says Mosby. "But never having a guy doesn't mean there isn't a void; (it means) that things are missing. These kids become men and women in pain, and this becomes generational pain. It is passed down."
The CFUF pilot program will work with 100 families.Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Joe Jones, CFUF's founder, wants to break that cycle of generational pain. Abandoned by his father at age 9, Jones says he quelled the hurt by trying heroin for the first time at age 13. In and out of jail, he was finally offered the chance to stay on the outside if he enrolled in long-term drug treatment. He had a son, and his absence from his son’s life was eating at him. Jones took the deal.
Sober, he worked to change his life. As a social worker in the Baltimore City Health Department, he discovered how few resources were available for fathers. In 1993 he launched Men’s Services within the health department, with the goals of helping fathers reconnect with their families, find employment, pay child support, overcome addiction and learn parenting skills. But soon it became clear to Jones that the need for such programs far exceeded what he could do within the health department. In 1999, with funding from the Ford Foundation, the Abell Foundation and other nonprofits, he founded CFUF.