RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Despite decades of cracking down on deadbeat dads, unpaid child support in the U.S. has climbed to well over $100 billion. Enforcement agencies have given up on collecting much of it. They say too many men are simply too poor to pay. Instead, states are looking to cut parents a deal. NPR's Jennifer Ludden looks at one such effort in Baltimore.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: When the state of Maryland wanted to reach dads with child support debt, it started here. The boarded-up blocks of West Baltimore, neighborhoods marked by drugs, violence, unemployment. The state surveyed the area with Joe Jones of the Center for Urban Families.
JOE JONES: Within those zip codes, there are approximately 2,400 men who owe $20 million in back state-owed child support.
LUDDEN: State owed. It means this kind of child support is actually supposed to reimburse taxpayers for welfare paid to the child's mother. But Jones says most who owe it earn less than $10,000 a year.
JONES: So even if we use taxpayer dollars to chase them down and we catch them, right, and we go into their pockets, there's nothing in there.
LUDDEN: Are they deadbeat?
JOSEPH DIPRIMIO: I don't like that expression. I think that's vulgar. I don't use it.
LUDDEN: Joseph DiPrimio heads Maryland's Child Support Enforcement Office. He prefers dead broke.
DIPRIMIO: We're talking about individuals that are economically challenged. They're underemployed. But they want to do the right thing.
LUDDEN: Research shows high child support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless they give up trying to pay it. DiPrimio wanted to make parents an offer. But he needed their trust and that was a problem.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The lead county investigators say they set up a unique sting operation to take down deadbeat moms and dads.
LUDDEN: Stings like this one in Alabama four years ago have happened all over the country including Baltimore. The local Sheriff's office sent fake letters telling parents they'd won free football tickets. Instead, WTVM's Evening News showed them getting arrested.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Take him down. Take him down.
LUDDEN: To break through years of distrust, Maryland sent letters to parents with the logo of the Center for Urban Families. They made this offer. If you take the center's month-long employment training course and land a job we'll forgive 10 percent of your child support debt. Complete a responsible fatherhood program, we'll write off another 15 percent. Response has been slow. In two years, just over 100 parents have signed on, many attending fatherhood meetings like this one.
EDDIE WHITE: We definitely want to start with introductions.
LUDDEN: Two dozen men sit in a large square - 20-something to middle-aged in sweats and in suits. Some complained their exes won't let them see their child if they haven't paid child support. Others don't understand why it doesn't count as support when they take their kids out to eat or buy them clothes. Mostly, like 30-year-old, Lee Ford, they say it is so hard to find work.
LEE FORD: But you are telling me, no matter what, I got to pay. But I can't get a job to work to save my soul.
LUDDEN: Group leader Eddie White cuts no slack.
WHITE: If you know you've got a criminal record, sure it's going to be hard for you to get a job. But it don't mean you can't work.
LUDDEN: A big part of this class is also educational.
WHITE: I'm paying my child support and I get laid off or I lose my job, right? What should happen?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You got to call to the office immediately.
WHITE: There you go. That's the word - immediately.
LUDDEN: Immediately ask the court for an adjustment, White says. The Obama administration has proposed rules to make child support orders more in line with what parents actually earn. They'd also provide more job training. Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says it's a good investment.
RON HASKINS: More fathers will get a job. More fathers will have earnings. And more fathers will use those earnings to pay child support.
LUDDEN: So far that's what has happened in Baltimore. The numbers are small but the amount of child support that's been paid is more than double the amount of debt written off.
WHITE: Right over left, grab the wrist.
LUDDEN: In a ritual end to their meeting, the men gather in a circle, arms entwined.
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
LUDDEN: Maryland wants to expand its child support debt forgiveness program, hoping to help more parents pay what they can. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.