During his senior year of high school, star quarterback Orenthius Perkins impregnated three young women from his hometown, a tiny place in Georgia called Forsyth. It all happened at once: Two of his daughters were born on the same day, and his son was born two months later. Perkins, who had won a football scholarship to Valdasta State, was 17 years old when he had to start paying child support.
“I wasn’t mentally ready,” he says. “I got put on child support for all three at one time.”
His father helped with the payments in the beginning. And Perkins admits he wasn’t a present father at first. “At that time at school being young and wild, I wasn’t focused,” he says. After a year and a half of college Perkins dropped out and moved back home. “It took a while to kick in, to understand that I had three kids, and a lot of responsibility.”
All noncustodial parents, the overwhelming majority of whom are men, are legally obligated to pay child support, but for those who are poor, it simply compounds their poverty. The racial wage gap shows that white men get paid an average of $21 dollars an hour while black men get paid an average of $15 an hour. Child support data isn’t collected by race, but given black men’s disadvantage in the workplace, it’s safe to presume they also disproportionately owe child support when they cannot afford it.
“Twenty percent of the people in this system shouldn’t be in there because they’re too poor,” says David J. Pate, an associate professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. “Those $10,000 or even $20,000 earners.” The government, according to Pate, is owed $115 billion in child support, but 70% of that money is owed by Americans who make less than $10,000 a year.
Once Perkins dropped out of college, he spent the next decade of his life figuring out how to become a “good man” who takes care of his children. But without a college degree in a town where 18% of people live under the poverty line, finding a job to support his three children was tough. “I remember I got a job working at the interstate Ford dealership at the time and I got a check for zero dollars,” he says; his paycheck had all gone to child support. He says he was “frustrated” and “trying to run around” and “hustle” to make his way.
Throughout his adult life Perkins says he’s had “endless” odd jobs, from cutting grass to helping a cousin with framing and roofing. “I went to school to cut hair and I got my license,” he says. “But this is such a small town and there’s really only two barbers here…no one would let me cut their hair.” He did “anything” he could do to make ends meet. But no matter what, he always came up short.
I met Perkins last month in Forsyth at the town’s upscale restaurant, Grits Cafe, where we drank an iced tea together. The 35-year-old was dressed in a collared shirt, tie, and slacks, and nervously admitted that even though he grew up in Forsyth, he’d never been to Grits Cafe. He also confessed he wasn’t sure he had dressed correctly for the occasion: We were meeting after this year’s Parental Accountability Court Graduation. There were ten graduates that day, most of whom were black men, and they were there to get their diplomas for completing a year-long, state-run program to pay off their child support, rather than going to jail for failing to pay. The graduates today have paid off their debt for at least six months. At 1 p.m., when most folks were off eating lunch and escaping the hot Georgia summer, a stream of local government officials, family, and friends poured into the upstairs courtroom doors for the ceremony.
That day, the state of Georgia was happy: It was the program’s fourth graduation, and the numbers were looking good. There have been 2,711 successful graduates and 4,780 children who have benefited, and the state has been paid back $2.8 million in child support and saved $10 million in incarceration costs. But the question still lingered: Should these parents be forced to pay child support at all?
There are efforts by the government to change child support policy. Both the Obama administration and the Commissioner for the Office of Child Support Enforcement, Vicki Turetsky, have been outspoken about policy changes for noncustodial parents who cannot pay child support. In fact, there was a 2011 Supreme Court ruling mandating that lower courts keep parents out of jail unless they are sure he or she can pay the debt.
But conservatives are against the idea, claiming that it undercuts the value of personal responsibility. When the Obama administration proposed new regulations on child support that would take away harsh burdens from poor non-custodial parents, Orrin Hatch, the Republican Senator from Utah, said it was a bad idea. “Deadbeat parents, not hardworking taxpayers, should be held accountable for their financial responsibilities,” he said in a press release.
But activists like Turetsky insists it’s not that simple. “Jail is appropriate for someone who is actively hiding assets, not appropriate for someone who couldn’t pay the order in the first place,” Turetsky told the New York Times in 2015.
During his struggle to find adequate employment, Perkins was sent to jail on three separate occasions before 2011 for not paying child support. He says he has struggled to understand why he was forced to pay the government. He would rather the government’s focus be placed on co-parenting and actually giving parents the ability to spend time with their children, as opposed to putting so much emphasis on money.
“Kids remember memories,” Perkins says. “A three- or four-year-old child doesn’t know about money. They don’t care about money. You can take your child to the McDonald’s and watch them play in the playground for free and they’ll remember that all their life.”
At times, Perkins says he butt heads with Stacey Sitten, his beloved counselor and the region’s parent accountability coordinator, on the philosophical issue of his debt.
“Why I got to pay you when I can pay my child directly?” he recalled asking Sitten. But he says the counselor explained to him that “it’s an order, it’s the law,” and there was “nothing she could do about the law.”
But something can be done. A state can decide whether to award child support to the custodial parent or keep the money. If a mother is on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, he or she is not necessarily entitled to any or all of the child support paid by the non-custodial parent. That money goes to the government. Sitten says the money non-custodial parents pay does not go to the state unless a custodial parent was receiving TANF.
The problem with alternative-to-incarceration programs run by the state, Pate says, is that they are a conflict of interest. “It’s a government program,” says Pate. The children, he says, aren’t generally the beneficiaries of child support. “They’re not getting the money—the government is.”
Despite his reservations about the complexity of the system, for Perkins the program was a success. Perkins, who ended up marrying the mother of one of his three kids in 2006, has just completed paying $2,000 in back child support for his two other children, who are now 18. The program helped him get a job with a better income, which he’s thankful for. He took a truck drivers’ course during his time in the program, and he’s been working for a company that pays him between $500 and $700 a week and sends him home to his family every night. “To be able to catch up and now be done, it’s a great feeling,” Perkins says.
Earlier this year Perkins took his wife and three children on vacation to Orlando. “We did a timeshare at an all-inclusive resort,” he told me. “It’s something they’ll never forget, something I’ll never forget.” It was the first vacation Perkins was able to afford for his family. And he credits the alternative-to-incarceration program for helping him get there. But Pate sees these programs are a band-aid, rather than attacking the real problem. “We need to think a lot more creatively about how we deal with race and poverty in America.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.