Monday, December 02, 2002

Losing My Car to the System

I am going to be forced to hand over the title to my car this week. I had to put it in the shop for a new braking system and a timing belt. I cannot get a loan from my bank - or anyone else - to cover the $1600 I owe for the repairs, and I cannot come up with it on my own. The garage has waited patiently for payment, but since I cannot pay, they will keep the car.

I still owe another bank on the initial purchase, so now I will spend the next 18 months paying off a car I no longer have any access to.

Banks will not readily loan to child support payors because the government has "first dibs" on a payor's income. I am considered a liability simply because of this, despite the fact that my credit isn't nearly as bad as it could be. Essentially, my own bank has labeled me a deadbeat.

What has continually plagued me since my divorce has been the negative image of being a divorced woman. A divorced woman has always been recognized as "unable" to take care of herself. She is routinely viewed as a bottom-feeder on the financial ladder and many opportunities readily available to single or married women are kept from her, simply due to her status. Certainly, the banks have handed me the Scarlet D.
Compound this label with the label of Child Support Payor, and, well, you get the picture.

I am thrilled to continue to pay off the loan on my car, even though I will never see it again. Worse, I will be unable to purchase another car because of this mess.

I had written a letter explaining my complete situation and the exact purpose of the loan, but it didn't matter. In today's economy, the banks are only willing to help those who - in my own envious opinion - don't really need help. My own bank essentially flushed me down the toilet.

So, in order to make myself feel better, I've decided that if I ever win the lottery, I will close my account with them. If I ever get myself in a better place, they will not have my business for profit. They doubt I can do it. I will prove them wrong.

In the meantime, I must ponder moving between the two jobs and all else in my world without my own transportation...through the cold and blustery winds of the winter. How fun.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Part 1: My story...

My ex-husband and I sat before the lawyer, working out a divorce settlement. I hadn't lived with him or the kids for a year, so we were finally able to legally divorce. I was panic-stricken, because today we would make the issue of child support official. I was already holding my ankles.

The lawyer asked Robert what he was making as a salary. "About $25,000 a year," he answered. This from a man who worked 15 jobs aver 15 months, and couldn't keep one because he didn't like to go to work. The catch was that he was now working for his brother's construction company. His brother was paying him well, and allowed Rob and the Kids to share his house with him, provided they split the expenses.

The lawyer asked me how much I was making. I had all of my paycheck stubs and tax records with me for verification. "I'm making about $14,000 a year."
"No," said the lawyer. "How much do you make an hour?"
"Oh. I'm getting $10 an hour," I replied. "About $1000 a month, after taxes."
He took out his calculator and multiplied my wage by 42 hours a week.
"You should be making about $22,000 a year, then," he answered.
"But, I'm only able to get about 32-34 hours each week. It's just the way it goes at my job," I squeaked. "I almost never get full-time."

It didn't matter. He added Robert's alleged $25,000 a year with my alleged $22,000 a year. He took that $47,000, divided by 2, checked the state guidelines and handed me the bill. I would be paying $1000 a month.

I started to cry.
"But, sir, my apartment is $450 a month! What about my car? What about my bills? I can't afford that much each month - I don't make it!"

"That's too bad, Mrs. C. You'll just have to get another job."

The lawyer never verified either or our actual incomes. When I protested to the Midwestern Regional office of Child Support Administration, they backed the lawyer's decision. "Anything less," they said, "would be an injustice to your children."

Part 2: Harsh realizations...

I did some research at home; here on my battered computer I refuse to part with. I learned that it was perfectly legal to withhold up to 67% of the non-custodial parent's income, provided that figure did not put the NCP under the federal poverty limit. Wow. Maybe it makes sense to withhold that much from a parent who is making 6 figures annually. But I'm only making a little over $20,000 each year, and I have to have 2, almost-full-time-jobs to do this. Take 67% of $20,000 and I am left with an income of $6,600 a year. This is below the federal poverty level! After getting my second job, I now have an annual income of a whopping $9200.00 a year, which is just barely above the limit.

I also learned that two things would happen should I fail to make those payments at any time, for any reason. First, my driver's license would be suspended and my car impounded. Second, I would do 30 days at the Justice Center for nonpayment. Consequently, I am completely unprepared for financial emergencies of any kind. I can face these penalties even if I become ill and/or hospitalized, or if I become pregnant and do not work and pay through my delivery. My child support payments do not decrease if I have another child.
Ironically, I can no longer get birth control pills, because I cannot get health insurance at either job (because I can't get enough hours each week to qualify). Nor can I afford them out-of-pocket. I am resolved to a life of abstinence, period (God help me if I am ever raped). "Fortunately" due to my increased workload, I have not had a menstrual period in 6 months.

I learned that, should I ever remarry, my new husband would be financially penalized. He too will be added into my child support equation, and he will lose 67% as well. But, should a non-custodial FATHER remarry, his new wife's income is NOT figured in. What kind of crazy double-standard is this??!!
Obviously, these laws were written to incarcerate absent fathers, or the stereotypical "deadbeat dad". Having read several letters written by well-meaning fathers who feel like I do, the system is undeniably constructed to enforce the religious and moral implications of divorce and parenthood. It is not designed from a purely political standpoint, unless one weighs the heavy influence of Christian values on our government. These laws are no longer practical in today's society, save for those "deadbeats" who really are evading responsibility.

Let me tell you, unless you are a custodial mother, these laws are absolutely NOT designed for women.

Part 3: Stories about my friends...

My friend Carla is sitting in a state prison right now. She didn't kill or hurt anyone. She didn't rob a bank. She simply couldn't pay her child support. She's doing 6 months for it.
After separation from her daughter's father, he sued her for child support, even though he had been working and she stayed home - because she left and her daughter wished to stay with her father. He won. Carla was faced with an arrearage bill of nearly $10,000. Carla didn't have it. Carla wasn't going to have it in the 30 days the courts gave her to come up with it. When she gets out, she'll be on probation for a long time, and that $10,000 will be added into her monthly payments - almost doubling them.
Carla may do another 6 months.

My friend Rich and his wife divorced after 6 years of marriage. She retained custody of their son, and he was ordered to pay child support. Rich's wife makes $48,000 a year, while he makes about $20,000. The courts added the incomes together, divided by two, and handed Rich the bill. He had to move in with his mother, and he lost his truck. He also lost his integrity and, like me, is working so much that he cannot see his son. He is sad and bitter. He is one of the few men I have ever seen cry.

Tim and his girlfriend, Karen, have a 4-year-old son they share custody of. No one ever went to court; no one ever sued anyone for anything. Tim is still giving up his 67% because the state says he has to. Karen refunds half of his payment to him privately, because they have their own arrangement. But, the state says they are not allowed to have their own arrangement. Both are angry and feel their privacy has been invaded. The courts blow them off.

Tune in soon to hear about being pulled over more often, being checked by the BMV, and how the government has decided to investigate my payments on student loans from 1989-90. Welcome to the machine.

I have been working in the restuarant industry for 15 years, minus the time I was pregnant and a new mother. I have been frustrated by the fact that I cannot get paid or respected for my experience and skills after all this time. Another big issue has been my child support: In order to make my required payments, I have to have 2 jobs, because 1 restaurant job just won't cut it. The industry caps its hourly employees under full-time status to cut the costs associated with healthcare benefits, overtime, holiday pay, etc. etc.
I believe one issue contributing to our stalling economy has been an excess of what we call the "working poor": people who work full-time (or close to it) but still cannot make ends meet because their jobs are so low-paying. There are so many of these cheap jobs that a big portion of our tax-paying society cannot really buy into the economy. It takes everything just to remain off the homeless list or keep the power on - forget buying Christmas presents. Hell, some of us are so poor, we cannot even support our own industry - my own situation keeps me from the grocery store, let alone Taco Bell!
I read recently that $12/hour was a proposal for the new minimum wage. Great. It may have taken me 15 years to double my income, only to find myself right back at the poverty line. As if I haven't been here long enough.
This article was originally published at, but since it's a big part of my Ongoing Frustrations, Rants and Raves, it belongs in my weblog as well.

Employee turnover. Everybody knows how time-consuming and costly this issue is. Everybody believes they can reduce turnover by creating a “positive, friendly, team-oriented workplace.” Maybe. My own experiences with turnover, as an employee and manager, suggest there’s more to the equation. Let me begin by giving you folks a little personal example.
I am 31 years old, and I have worked in food service since 1988. I have worked in every capacity imaginable: as a dishwasher, as a server, a cook; I designed and opened a test-store for possible franchise, I’ve designed lists and inventories, and I’ve done the accounting. I’ve prepped for catering events of 700. The list goes on. The last fifteen years of my life have been devoted to being the best, most-rounded restaurant employee I could possible be. Life should be great, eh?
I make $12 an hour. So does the 19-year old in my kitchen with 1 year’s worth of “experience”. My hours are held at part-time, no matter what. I cannot get benefits because I cannot seem to get to full-time (allegedly, I’m “expensive”). It gets worse. If I am offered a management position, my salary works out to even less an hour, though I can get health insurance if I pay up $75 a week. I have two school age children I cannot insure, I have core cost-of-living expenses I cannot always meet. I am a mature, responsible adult, with a lifetime of experience, and I am worth no more than my teenage colleague, who lives with his parents!
So, as soon as I find another dollar or two an hour, well, I’ll become a turnover statistic. Folks, we have made our dining rooms more family-friendly than our industry. We cannot expect to keep quality employees, like me, for long when those employees cannot even subsist on what we’re offering.
I believe if we truly want to hire and promote the best, we need to take care of them. Our workplaces ARE happier and more fun when employees don’t carry around the stress of financial failure: Every day, someone complains about being broke, every day, somebody wants to borrow $10 or is on their way to the office for an advance. My weekly paycheck covers my rent and leaves me $20 for the week. I worked hard- for this??! I certainly do not feel like a success. Reviews? Yes, I get great reviews, but I have NEVER gotten a raise. No matter how much I’ve enjoyed the establishments I’ve been associated with, I must always leave.
I’m not alone. As a manager, I’ve seen my own staffs turn over, not because of theft, or poor performance, or illness, but because of poverty and finance. A new job might mean another dollar, while staying on with the present company may mean nothing. Like me, they too have to become statistics. This despite classified ads promising “competitive wages” and “amazing benefits”. Are we competing with the welfare department and the volunteer lunch program?! I’ve lost some of the best line cooks to the almighty dollar (if that much) of another kitchen. It’s frustrating.
Our horrible rates of compensation make us the lowest-of-low on the employment status scale. How much esteem does your cashier really have when she makes barely the minimum wage - and why is your register consistently a little short from time to time? How carefully will your cook prepare an order when his car is being repossessed, and how come you’re missing a few steaks from the freezer? Hmmm. Is your manager really running late, or did she accept an interview with your competitor down the street?
We tell our customers we care about them and truly appreciate their business - we print coupons and host promotions to woo them in. We evaluate our staffs, and say, “Yes, Richard, you’ve never screwed up, your performance rocks, but, gee whiz, we can’t give out raises. Sorry.” Our customers return, but our employees do not…and I don’t think we care. We want consistency in our products and service - we demand it - yet we encourage inconsistency and fluctuation with our “process”.
We’ll pay for quality products: the finest wines, the juiciest steaks, and the most refined cheeses. Why aren’t we doing the same with quality employees? There are plenty of us out here: experienced, knowledgeable, reliable, and mature. We’re the ones who make the steak juicy and the cheese display impeccable, who understand the wine list and can mix more than a pre-measured margarita.
Folks, you do get what you pay for. If you want minimum performance, give minimum pay. Spending for employee turnover is like paying for wireless calling cards when you’re a full-time cell phone user.
You’ve got to spend some money to make some money. That’s what I figure I’m doing every time I affix stamps to the envelopes of the resumes I mail: Spending it to make it. Oh yeah, that’s right. I work in food service…

This was a letter I mailed to an organization dedicated to promoting changes within the Family Law, the ACFC. They were surprised at the fact that a woman could find herself having the same problems as men with respect to child support laws, and they agreed to publish it. *****

I am a divorced mother of two: my son is 6, my daughter is turning 5. They live with their father, and I am paying child support. I have not seen them in eight months. I will tell you why.

My husband worked a succession of 15 jobs during the 15 months between my children's births. He couldn't keep one to save his life. Many times, the rent was late or the utilities unpaid. Fed up with this after my daughter's birth, I went to work as a teacher. Because we were financially devastated, I worked a restaurant job at night. I was never home. I rarely saw my children. I still did the laundry, I still did the dishes...While my ex-husband proved to be a fabulous father, he was incapable of being a provider. I sacrificed my joys of being a mother in order to pay our bills and put food on the table. My ex-husband took the time of my absence to start an affair with a woman who occasionally babysat for us. I filed for divorce after he confessed the affair to me, and we separated. I continued to help to support them even during our separation, because I had been doing it since my daughter's birth.
He got a job in construction just before we separated - his brother owns and operates his own carpentry business. His brother also arranged for he and the children to share his house, provided they split the expenses. This is still their living arrangement, and he is still working for his brother. He is also receiving up to 75% of my income, depending on how many hours I can get in.

I work 72-80 hours a week between two almost-full-time jobs. One job pays child support. The other job pays for my apartment and transportation only. His lawyer based my child support payments on what he "determined I should be making" as opposed to what I actually was making. Then he added it to my-exhusband's income, divided by 2, and stuck me with the bill. At the time, it was 75-85% of my actual income. They did not care. I now live on no more than $50 a month, after I pay child support and basic, "cost-of-living" bills. I do not have groceries. I do not have health insurance (remember, I said "almost-full-time jobs"). Sometimes I do not have electricity. Sometimes I do not have a phone.
I lost 67 pounds this year. I haven't been able to get prescriptions I need because I cannot afford them. I have not had a menstrual period in 6 months. My hair is falling out in clumps. This is no joke. The system does not care. "Too bad. You deserve it, you horrible non-custodial parent..."
My credit is deteriorating. The income strain has caused some delinquencies. The added stigma of being not only a divorced woman, BUT ALSO a child support payor has not been helpful. The loss of credit has upped the cost of my car insurance: I have an imacculate driving record, but all they see is my eroding credit score. The BMV harasses me, and suddenly the government is sending me letters about student loans from 1990. When my paycheck bounced on me - and the system - in July, my caseworker informed me that I would lose my driver's license and/or do 30 days if I didn't cough up that payment. "Ha ha! We have ways of making you pay, you deadbeat..."

I miss my children so much. I have never really had much time with them, which makes me angry and was a big factor in my desire for the divorce. To this day, I am angry that he did not care enough to provide for his wife and children - that I was robbed of my motherhood. I am angry that he has been rewarded for having an affair, and for having put us through the finacial hell that made it all possible. All I get now are occassional messages from the kids, wanting to know when they can see mommy again. But mommy never has a full day off. And mommy cries.

This system is designed specifically to incarcerate the stereotypical "deadbeat dad". It is not designed for parents of amiable relations, and it is not designed for women unless they are custodial. If I get pregnant and am unable to work, I might be delivering my new baby in the Slammer. If I remarry, the system adds my new husband's income to the equation, then penalizes him financially for marrying me. The simple fact that I can no longer visit my children or even TRY to be their mother - because I am on the financial tightrope...well, Hooray for "Family Values". This is so family-friendly that I could just puke. It's disgusting.

Perhaps it is reasonable to sap someone making 6-figures for 67% of their income. But where is the logic in witholding 67% from a person who is only making 20,000 a year? Have these people seen ads for the rent on an apartment? On anything? The answer is simple: Money. They believe money will solve everything: More money = better child. Forget parenting. Forget all else and focus on the dollar. My children have no mother now not because of our divorce, but because of this system. If I take a day off from work, I'm screwed. I will be even more useless to them in jail when I miss that payment.

Of course, losing another 67 pounds will kill me. Then everyone loses.