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Liberal, Conservative Team Up To Revamp Child-Support Collection System

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WASHINGTON--Citing a need to promote "parental responsibility'' and reduce the poverty rate of children living in single-parent homes, two lawmakers with divergent political views have proposed major changes in the way child-support payments are collected.

"The left and the right have come together and realized this is an important action for children,'' said Geraldine Jensen, national president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, an advocacy group representing families owed child support. "The benefit to this is that many fewer children will be going to school hungry. They will be able to learn better and grow up and be productive citizens,'' she said.

The proposal was unveiled at a news conference last week by Representative Thomas J. Downey, a liberal Democrat from New York, and Repesentative Henry J. Hyde, a conservative Illinois Republican. It would shift responsibility for enforcing child-support orders from the states to the federal government, with the Internal Revenue Service as the main collection agent.

To the extent that an absent parent fails to comply, the federal government would provide a guaranteed monthly benefit, totaling up to $4,000 annually, for children owed child support. The minimum assured payment would be $2,000 annually for the first child, $1,000 for the second, and $500 each for the third and fourth children.

To identify absent fathers for as many children born out of wedlock as soon as possible, the proposal would give states funds to start a paternity-establishment program under federal guidelines.

The plan would also require noncustodial unemployed fathers to participate in job training or public-service jobs. States would receive $4 billion to administer the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills training program for those parents and provide 300,000 public-service jobs.

To ensure that the assured child-support payment is "a substitute for, and not a supplement to,'' welfare benefits, the plan would also reduce "dollar for dollar'' the welfare benefits of families who receive the assured child-support payment. Mothers would have to cooperate in the government's efforts to identify the father and enforce awards in order to receive the assured payment.

Mr. Downey and Mr. Hyde estimated the proposal would cost from $5 billion to $10 billion a year. They are not expected to introduce it as legislation until next year, calling it a "blueprint for discussion.''

Seeking Common Ground

But both said the proposal signifies an area of common ground between liberal and conservatives.

"We are both appalled by what we see today, the disintegration of the American family and the havoc this has wrought on millions of innocent children,'' said Mr. Hyde. "Parental responsibility must regain its place at the center of our system of values, and we must acknowledge governmental responsibility to protect children when their fathers sadly fail them.''

"We need to move beyond scapegoating and attempt to find a solution that recognizes both the needs of children and the responsibilities of parents,'' Mr. Downey said.

Data released by the Census Bureau last week show that the number of single-parent households increased by 15 percent, to 8.6 million, between 1985 and 1989.

Data cited at last week's news conference also showed that 4 million, or 27 percent, of the total number of births in 1989 were to unmarried women, and that the share of children in single-parent families rose from 9.1 percent in 1960 to 24.7 percent in 1990. In 1990, 51 percent of the children in female-headed families were poor, compared with 10 percent of those with a male present.

Of the 5 million women due child support under court orders in 1989, half got full payments and one quarter got no payment. Of the 10 million women raising children alone, only 26 percent got full child support.

The remedy proposed last week is similar in concept to smaller demonstration projects that have been recommended by the National Commission on Children and introduced by other lawmakers. While the more sweeping Downey-Hyde proposal drew praise last week from such groups as the Children's Defense Fund, however, some conservative policy analysts were critical.

Douglas Besharov, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the approach runs counter to welfare-reform thinking "built on the belief that we have to be much more effective at motivating single mothers to work.''

"There is a plethora of research--most by liberal academics--that would support that every dollar more you give to a welfare mother reduces her incentive to work,'' he said.

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