Drawing on interviews with formerly incarcerated fathers and court observations of child-support hearings, this article explores the state’s role in the massive accumulation of child-support debt. Arguing that this role is too often hidden from view, the article demystifies how much “child” support debt is actually owed to the state itself—and is thus as much about state obligations as familial ones. These state obligations emerge from two main sources: public assistance payback policies, which “bill” noncustodial parents for the cost of the public aid received by their families; and interest charges on all support debt, which most states charge at rates of up to 10 percent. Both state practices hit incarcerated parents especially hard, since they are usually unable to keep up with their support orders while in prison—and often unaware of how and why their debt is accruing. By becoming a means to prop up the state, support debt acts very much like other forms of carceral debt. Yet it also inserts the state into familial relations in ways that can exacerbate conflict between parents and complicate fathers’ ability to care for their children.
Child Support and Deadbeat States
Lynne Haney is professor of sociology at New York University and at the Institute for Gender Studies at the University of South Africa. She is the author of several books on state policy and punishment, including Offending Women and Inventing the Needy. Her most recent book, Prisons of Debt: The Afterlives of Incarcerated Fathers, explores the experiences of fathers living at the intersection of the criminal justice and child-support systems, analyzing how those systems work together to trap parents in cycles of debt and punishment.
Lynne Haney; Child Support and Deadbeat States. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 October 2022; 121 (4): 860–864. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-10066566
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