Civil Liberties

Deadbeat Deadlines


In its dogged pursuit of deadbeat dads, the federal government ordered every state to centralize its data on the whereabouts and amounts owed by absent fathers in a single computer base, to be modeled after a similar one at work in New Hampshire and Maine. After spending over $100 million–more than three times the planned budget–California admitted last November it couldn't get its Statewide Automated Child Support System to work.

The feds demanded the system be up and running by October 1, 1997; thus, California is in danger of losing its entire federal welfare block grant of around $4 billion. California is one of 14 states, plus the District of Columbia, in a similar bind. Health and Human Services spokesman Michael Kharfen says that, absent a statutory change, the feds will have no choice but to cut off money to the offending states this year.

Corinne Chee, spokesman for California's Department of Social Services, questions the sense of the federal government's simultaneously touting "laboratories of democracy" with welfare block grants and threatening to topple that whole system if a state doesn't run its child support system exactly as the feds demand. "On child welfare, they still want to regulate everything," Chee says. "What works for California isn't necessarily going to be what works elsewhere." As of early February, Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) was pushing a bill, expected to pass Congress, that would allow states to keep getting federal funds, paying a smaller penalty while they kept trying to upgrade their computer systems.