Bad news for deadbeat dads: The Montana state Senate has passed a law that will send people to jail for not paying their legally mandated child support. Just kidding! You can still abandon your kids and not really suffer any consequences, as long as they have a mother to look after them.
According to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, 37 percent of Montana families did not receive the child support payments they were legally owed in 2013. That's over $147 million in arrears, and the state only collected 12 percent of it. You can totally get away with not supporting your children, even if a judge says you have to. But if the Senate passes the bill it heard last week, you won't be able to get a hunting license.
Senate Bill 172, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, would bar people with unpaid child support debts from purchasing hunting, fishing or trapping licenses. It doesn't sound like much, but it might be effective. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sarah Swanson-Partridge of Glasgow said her former husband went seven years without making his court-mandated child support payments. After a state agency threatened to withhold his trapping and fishing licenses, however, he paid off the overdue child support in one year.
Now there's a man who loves fishing! I'd love to spend an hour in a boat with him, talking about casting techniques, lures, his favorite spots—any subject, really, except his kids. But I digress. The point is that this small measure could work, even on people whose priorities are so warped that you can't think about them for more than a few seconds without wanting to take to the streets with an ax in search of anyone who appears biologically male.
And yet SB 172 has its detractors. Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, told the committee that she agrees with child support enforcement in principle, but worries that the bill could hurt families who rely on hunting for food. Here she is as quoted in the Daily Inter Lake:
"A number of people in this state that are in poverty, and lack of payment is not always because they don't want to—sometimes it's because they can't," she said. "I'm really concerned if we strip away a person's ability to provide sustenance through wild meat that is obtained by a great number of families through fishing, hunting and trapping in this state, I'm really concerned that we're not helping families."
Let us take the substance of this objection where we can find it. Fielder is right that a number of people in this state are in poverty. For example, 63 percent of Montana children living below the poverty line live with a single parent. But the idea that a significant portion of deadbeat dads can't afford to pay child support doesn't make sense.
Child support payments are pegged to income. It's not how much the kids need, but how much the non-custodial parent makes—as any single mom will tell you, if you can catch her between shifts. Payments can be adjusted or postponed in the event of unemployment or income change. By definition, unpaid child support is money that people could have paid.
In this context, Fielder's subsistence-hunting objection is absurd. It is hard to imagine that a lot of deadbeat dads are bringing their children wild game. This argument seems more like a product of Fielder's knee-jerk opposition to any restriction on hunting privileges than of her concern for people who pay their child support in venison.
Such people shouldn't be able to get hunting licenses. They shouldn't be able to stiff their kids without suffering any consequence worse than their own consciences can inflict. Custodial parents who don't adequately feed and house their children get charged with neglect. They go to jail. Deadbeats dads get away with it. The overwhelming majority don't even get sent to collections.
A just society would punish these men for abandoning their children. Instead, we lecture single mothers about family values and how irresponsible it is to raise kids without fathers. Single mothers aren't the problem. They're the ones who stuck around. The problem is the men who get women pregnant and abandon them, men who not only don't raise their own children, they can't even be bothered to send them a check.
There are thousands such men in Montana. There are more than there have to be, because we let them get away with it. Probably we should round them up and make them work in day-care centers and school cafeterias until they've paid what they owe. But not giving them fishing licenses is a start. If that's all it takes, I am A) profoundly depressed to hear that and, B) in favor of it.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and subsistence hunting at combatblog.net.