For New Jersey Powerball lottery winner Pedro Quezada, the Dominican bodega owner who just collected $215 million, the adage “Mo’ money, mo’ problems” has already proven true. Just days after winning the fourth largest Powerball jackpot in history, New Jersey authorities say he’s subject to arrest for the $29,000 he owes in back child support.
Funny, I think he’ll be able to catch up. What wasn’t funny is the immediate flood of comments on the Internet saying that Quezeda is a deadbeat father who doesn’t deserve the prize.
First of all, burglaries and a fire impacted his bodega business, so it’s possible that he was in extreme debt. On the day he found out that he won the lottery, he was loath to close the bodega because he didn’t want to lose the business. Second of all, Quezada, who is married, has acknowledged five children so it’s possible that he was in arrears or behind in making payments to children he didn’t live with. Yes, all his children need to be taken care of, but as anyone with children in multiple households can tell you, the priority is usually the ones living with you.
No one is excusing any man or woman who deliberately refuses to pay child support. And it’s hard to do so. If Quezada, a lottery winner, is subject to arrest, then imagine someone who’s just fallen behind and is having trouble keeping up with the payments. The rush to judgment is ludicrous in his situation, since he’s currently in the position not just to pay his outstanding child support but child support until the youngest of the children he has turns 18 or is no longer subject to child support at all. So as far as this one individual is concerned, his debt to his children will soon be resolved.
But why are men demonized, especially men of color, who often don’t have the means to deal with what is becoming a draconian system of child support collection? Men are still largely non-custodial parents and, in some cases, are taken for child support despite the mother’s refusal to work. Men do have rights and child support can be adjusted in situations where income is lost. But as we see in the news daily, the court system is flawed when it comes to justice for men of color and the child support system is no different. Should a man be forced to pay child support for children the mother doesn’t allow him to see? According to the court system, apparently yes. Should a man go to jail when he can’t pay, thus putting himself into a deeper hole as he can’t earn income while incarcerated? In many cases, the courts will say, yes.
Family courts haven’t figured out a plan to differentiate obvious deadbeat dads from those that truly can’t afford to pay. But isn’t that what famiiy court judges are for?
A 2007 study by The Urban Institute for the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that in the nine states the study focused on- Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas – the highest debtors, those who owed $30,000 or more, were the ones who had the lowest recorded income. The study acknowledged that these men could be hiding assets, participating in illegal activities or self-employed but that they their recorded wages were $10,000 or less. Given the high rate of black unemployment in those states, it’s very possible that good portions of the top debtors were themselves struggling.
Child support enforcement means that any reported wages or those that the government knows about are taken almost immediately after a man or woman begins a new job. You cannot get a tax return or a passport if you are behind in child support. There are men and women in their 40’s and 50’s paying child support for children who are now grown. And in most of those cases, mothers deserve to be repaid for the care and feeding of a child they raised alone. But for parents who can’t pay, child support becomes a never-ending cycle that at the end of the day doesn’t resolve the very problem it attempts to eradicate – that of providing material support for minor children.
The issues of child support, parental irresponsibility and protection of children are not going anywhere. Given the personal nature of the decision-making involved in having sex and producing children, there are no easy solutions. But until we make it easier for men and women to fulfill their financial obligations and the court system is more discerning about the kinds of penalties they apply to the mothers and fathers who struggling to do their best, we will continue to watch children suffer who are caught up in the middle. No easy solutions mean no easy conclusions should be drawn about those who find themselves behind in payments.
For Pedro Quezada and his children, there is a happy ending. If he’s able to manage the money wisely, finances should likely not be a problem for him and his family for some time to come. For the other Americans facing child support payments and for those children who need the money, the outcome is much less bright.