EXTRA CREDIT FOR FATHERS:
RELIABILITY EARNS TAX BREAK

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A new tax break will be available come April for lower-income parents responsible for child support, making it the first of its kind in the country. State officials are launching an earned income tax credit (EITC) for noncustodial parents who are current with their child support payments, offering up to $1,600 a year in a refundable credit.

“What we’re trying to do is work on the success of welfare reform, where we saw single moms move off the rolls. But we have not seen the same movement among young men,” said Michael Hayes, spokesperson for the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), which will administer the program. The payment is intended to help low-income, noncustodial parents – at least 90 percent of whom are fathers – maintain steady employment and keep up on child support, as well as maintain active roles in their childrens’ lives.

The new credit will be available to parents who are not their children’s primary caretakers and earn as much as $32,000. That’s a considerably higher income limit than the traditional EITC, which cuts off eligibility for single adults earning up to $11,750 – and offers only about $500 a year. Officials expect about 74,000 people to qualify statewide, including 22,000 in New York City, and estimate the first year will cost $18 million.

The initiative sounds good to Gregory Rodriguez. The 45 year-old human services worker reconnected with his 6 year-old son last year after joining a fatherhood support group at STRIVE, an East Harlem-based employment and human services agency. Since then, he says he’s struggled to meet his $200-a-month child support payments. “You want to adjust your arrears, and if you don’t make a lot of money, sometimes it’s hard,” said Rodriguez, who says he makes about $25,000 to $30,000 a year.

The tax credit is part of a broader effort, the Strengthening Families Initiative, intended to help young men gain employment and consistently pay child support, as well as enhance fathers’ parenting and relationship skills. That’s important, says Ron Haskins, a national welfare and poverty expert, because most antipoverty initiatives have focused solely on single mothers.

“I would not hesitate to say [male unemployment] is one of our three or four biggest domestic problems,” said Haskins, a welfare advisor to both Presidents Bush, and now co-director of the Center for Children and Families at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank. “Fathers have been left out of the equation. Essentially, the only way we pay attention to males once they’re out of school is either to put them in jail or to get child support from them.”

In addition to a range of federally funded fatherhood programs already operating here, New York City will see two pilot programs run under the state initiative: Dads Embracing Fatherhood, run by STRIVE, and the Parent Support Pilot, run by the Manhattan-based national workforce group Seedco.

Enrollment in fatherhood programs will be voluntary, according to OTDA, although it will be offered as an alternative to jail if a father ends up in court for failing to pay child support.

Merging job training efforts with parenting and relationship help is “on the cutting edge of fatherhood issues,” said Kate Janeski, director of supportive services for STRIVE. Though STRIVE has run a fatherhood support group for several years, the focus was strictly on healthy relationships – not employment. “We’ve developed a program that not only prepares fathers for active parenting, but for economic self-sufficiency,” said Janeski. “We really see this as a very progressive opportunity to offer economic and holistic support to noncustodial parents.”

Combining a tax credit with fatherhood help is particularly appealing to Rodriguez, who’s been seeing his son regularly since graduating the STRIVE program. “A lot of young fathers don’t know they have any rights…and they don’t realize the importance of being in a child’s life,” said Rodriguez. “And what they’re doing [with the new credit] is very good. Who thought of that?” said Rodriguzez. “It must have been a father.”

– Tracie McMillan