An April 10, 2015 article in The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) by Lauren Sausser titled “Walter Scott dogged by system that ‘criminalizes’ debt” gives some more information about the man who was murdered by police last week. The victim earned $800 per month in 2003, the last year for which data are available. In other words, the guy was roughly at the poverty line with less than $10,000 per year in income. Perhaps he enjoyed some raises since then, but it seems unlikely that he was the kind of defendant that a typical plaintiff would seek out. Yet the $6 billion state and federal child support enforcement apparatus was after him for cash. This was a sensible strategy for the government workers involved. They all got taxpayer-funded paychecks for pursuing Scott, prosecuting him in front of a judge, ordering him to go to prison three times (a defeated parent in South Carolina can be imprisoned if he or she is five days late paying child support in whatever amount might have been ordered by a court), guarding him in prison, etc.
Despite the fact that child support arrears had accumulated during Scott’s various imprisonments (in most states, a convict is supposed to continue to pay his or her plaintiff every month; if the child support cash is not paid while imprisoned, the money must be paid, plus interest, after the child support defendant is released), times during which presumably he had been unable to earn any income, his total debt was only about $18,000. A stated reason for the government to pursue child support defendants aggressively is that it will reduce welfare expenses, but $18,000 isn’t enough to cover the welfare bill of a typical family for very long (consider subsidized housing, Medicaid, food stamps, home heating assistance, school lunches, plus cash assistance such as TANF; total is about $60,000 per year per family in poverty). But in this case the salaries for the government workers chasing him were higher than the total amount sought (and thus presumably far higher than the total amount that anyone could expect to be collected). Let’s consider just one of Scott’s imprisonments. It was five months in length. The South Carolina Department of Corrections says that it spends about $19,137 per year per inmate. So just that single imprisonment cost roughly $8,000 in today’s dollars.
What about the idea that chasing after Scott for cash was somehow good for his children? The studies cited in our “Citizens and Legislators” chapter concluded that children were actually worse off. Here’s an excerpt from the “Children, Mothers, and Fathers” chapter:
“Child Support and Young Children’s Development” (Nepomnyaschy, et al, 2012; Social Science Review 86:1), a Rutgers and University of Wisconsin study of children of lower income unmarried parents, found that any kind of court involvement was associated with harm to children: “We also find that provision of formal [court-ordered] child support is associated with worse withdrawn and aggressive behaviors.” The authors found that informal (voluntary) support from fathers could be helpful to children living with single mothers but court-ordered support, even when the cash was actually transferred, was on balance harmful.
So the taxpayers funded constant harassment and periodic imprisonment of this guy for more than a decade with no conceivable benefit to anyone except some government workers. Now the taxpayers will have to pay for the murder prosecution of the police officer who shot Walter Scott in the back. If a conviction is obtained, taxpayers will have to work extra hours every year so that the government can handle the typical endless rounds of appeals.