From Deadbeat To Dead Broke: The ‘Why’ Behind Unpaid Child Support

Harrelle Felipa with five of his children and a granddaughter. -Photo: Jennifer Ludden/NPR

Harrelle Felipa with five of his children and a granddaughter. – Photo: Jennifer Ludden/NPR

On a recent Saturday afternoon at his West Baltimore row house, Harrelle Felipa fields a steady stream of interruptions as he breads a large plate of fish and chicken for dinner.

His 4-year-old son wants to recite his letters. The 3-year-old brings him a toy that’s broken. The tweens play Minecraft on the Xbox while Felipa’s teen daughter checks her email. Felipa says he loves it.

“This is what my life consists of,” he says. “I arrange my life around these guys.”

It’s not the typical image of a “deadbeat dad.”

Yet 47-year-old Felipa owes $20,000 in unpaid child support. Over the years, he has lost his driver’s license for that (for two months), and spent time in jail for missing a court appointment (for two weeks).

He is part of a shift: Despite a two-decade crackdown on delinquent dads — an enforcement push that officials say has largely worked — the U.S. has more than $113 billion in child support debt. The Obama administration, and others who support changes to child support enforcement, say this isn’t because men who have the means won’t pay.

“That problem has been solved,” says Vicki Turetsky, the head of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. That’s thanks to welfare reform in 1996, which included tougher rules that tracked down men with money.

The problem today, Turetsky says, is the many men without money. They don’t earn enough, and they’re accruing mountains of debt in back child support.

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