By Daniel Wagner
COURT STREET — Old child support debts could cost thousands of poor men their only income next year because of a policy aimed at reducing the cost to the government of mailing paper checks to pay federal benefits.
The Treasury Department will start paying benefits electronically next March. It will stop issuing the paper checks that many people rely on to safeguard a portion of their benefits from states trying to collect back child support.
States can freeze the bank accounts of people who owe child support. A separate Treasury Department rule, in place since last May in a preliminary form, guarantees them the power to freeze Social Security, disability and veterans’ benefits that have been deposited into those accounts.
Once paper checks are eliminated, about 275,000 people could lose access to all of their income, advocates say.
“It’s kind of Orwellian, what’s being set up here for a segment of the population,” says Brooklyn attorney Johnson Tyler, a who works at South Brooklyn Legal Services on Court Street and represents poor and disabled people collecting federal benefits. “It’s going to be a nightmare in about a year unless something changes.”
In many cases, the bills are decades old and the children long grown. Much of the money owed is interest and fees that add up when men are unable to pay because they are disabled, institutionalized or imprisoned.
Most of the money will go to governments, not to the children of the men with child support debts, independent analyses show. States are allowed to keep child support money as repayment for welfare previously provided for those children.
In some instances, the grown children are supporting their fathers.
The rule change illustrates how a politically desirable goal like cracking down on so-called deadbeat dads can have complicated, even counterproductive, effects in practice.
The Treasury Department understands that forcing people into direct deposit could deprive them of all of their income, say officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the rule-writing process.
States can garnish only 65 percent of benefits before the federal government sends them out. But the limit does not apply once the money is in an account and states ask banks to freeze it, according to a Treasury Department memo obtained by The Associated Press.
A Treasury spokesman declined to discuss the policy. The officials who spoke on condition of anonymity say they believe the policy is legally unavoidable. They described a dilemma: Restrain states trying to collect child-support debts or risk depriving thousands of people of their only income.
Treasury’s legal justification assumes that receiving a paper check is still an option, says Tyler, the Brooklyn attorney.
Letting state agencies seize the money contradicts the public stance of the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency in charge of child support collections. The department does not want states to collect child support so aggressively that poor people lose their only income, spokesman Ken Wolfe says.
“Child support enforcement — getting that money and passing it on to parents and children — is a measure to fight poverty, and it doesn’t make sense to accomplish that by impoverishing somebody else,” he says.
Where is the money balance derived from and who is benefiting?
“The rule doesn’t look at the fact that the money is mostly interest, the money is going to the state, the kids are usually adults, and it’s leaving the payer with nothing,” says Ashlee Highland, a legal aid attorney who works with the poor of Chicago.
Highland says her office has clients in eviction, in foreclosure and unable to pay their bills because of states’ aggressive efforts to collect back child support.
Marcial Herrera, 44, has had his bank account frozen repeatedly since 2009, blocking his access to $800 a month in government benefits. Unable to work because of a severe back injury he suffered in 2000, Herrera fell behind on child support. He owes more than $7,000 — not to his 22-year-old son, but to the state of New York, because his son received welfare years earlier.
Herrera sought help in court and had his son speak on his behalf, but the judge could not erase the thousands he already owed.
“I’m just waiting for them to lock me up,” he says. “I don’t see no other way of me repaying that debt.”
A legal aid attorney suggested Herrera collect his benefits by paper check. It costs him $15 to cash the check each month, but at least he can be sure that he will have money to pay his bills.
States have had the ability to freeze accounts for years. That’s why people like Herrera rely on paper checks to safeguard part of their income.
Starting next March, that option will disappear. The Treasury Department will deposit federal benefits directly into bank accounts or load them onto prepaid debit cards. Either way, state child support agencies will be able to seize all of it.
Electronic payments are expected to save the government $1 billion over the next 10 years, the Treasury Department says. It costs the government about $1 to mail a check, compared with about 10 cents for an electronic transfer.
Wolfe said HHS is developing guidelines for states to “make sure we’re not putting someone into deep poverty as a result of an automatic collection.” He declined to provide details of those plans.
Lawyers from HHS agreed with Treasury’s decision to let states seize benefits, according to the Treasury memo.
An early version of the Treasury department rule protected people from having their federal benefits frozen by debt collectors — including private collection agencies and states seeking back child support.
State child support agencies replied in public comments on the proposed rule that blocking their access to people’s benefits would cause great harm to parents and children receiving child support.
HHS research suggests the policy could deepen the hardship for people who collect benefits as well.
People who owe large amounts of child support are almost universally poor. Among those owing $30,000 or more, three-fourths had no reported income or income of less than $10,000, HHS says.