Is Trump’s Budget Inching America Towards (Literal) Slavery?

When examining modern policy, one rarely thinks, “I better pull up the 13th Amendment. I need to review the exact language to see if it applies.” Over 150 years ago, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and indentured servitude. Yet it seems strangely relevant Trump’s budget which proposes “to order any noncustodial parent who owes overdue [child] support into work activities.”

When the child support system orders parents to do something, it has heightened enforcement powers. This includes jailing those who do not comply, begging the following question: But isn’t that slavery though?

The Status Quo

Parents targeted for collection activities live apart from their children. They are largely fathers but some are mothers. Those who fall behind on their payments tend to be low-income, and therefore disproportionately people of color.

Historically, some orders have been set unfairly high. Administrators and judges have assumed parents could earn more money or get a job even when they couldn’t. Some states have allowed debts to grow even while parents are in prison and unable to work. In recent years, parts of the country have sought to reform such policies — others have not. Outsized debts plus forced work raises red flags about indentured servitude.

An unknown number of parents are already being ordered into job programs. Typically, this happens at the discretion of a judge with the power to jail parents who fail to sufficiently participate. In previous years, conservative thinkers have suggested dramatic expansions of forced work programs. They may have influenced Trump’s budget.

The current budget language is not law. However, it is a reflection of ideas that may be included in any future GOP “welfare reform” efforts. As in many other areas, the administration has yet to provide the details for its proposal. Nevertheless, given the potential implications, it cannot be ignored.

Worrying About the Single Mothers

If anyone asks, some might say that this proposal will help single mothers. They definitely need more money. Thirty-six percent of their families are poor. But slavery is obviously a disturbing go-to solution (especially for black Americans).

Meanwhile, the gender pay gap in America persists. And women of color are particularly disadvantaged, earning far less than their white female counterparts. If black women earned more than $0.63 for every $1.00 made by a white man, their children would definitely be less poor. Theoretically, the Trump Administration has the option of tackling that problem.

Effective civil rights enforcement could help alleviate discrimination within professions. Government is a big player in sectors that employ significant numbers of women. Examples include education, childcare, and healthcare. Thus, the government could pull legislative and administrative levers to ensure higher salaries for workers in these sectors. Finally, it always has the option of directly supplementing low wages through government programs and tax credits.

In short, if single mothers don’t have enough money, we should pay them more. Pay rates for women of color are so egregious, forceful demands are more than appropriate. #PayBlackWomenTheirMoney. #PayLatinasTheirMoney.

Hating Deadbeat Dads

Child support policy tends to be heavily influenced by the often racialized stereotype of the “deadbeat dad”. This black man doesn’t care about his kids and is too lazy to work.

Advocates have spent the last couple decades trying to tear down this myth. They work to prove what shouldn’t have to be proved — that black men are human beings. Like all other people groups, they care about their children. Advocates share anecdotal stories about low-income fathers and cite studies like one produced by the Centers for Disease Control which shows that black father involvement resembles or exceeds that of other racial groups. Black men care. And they aren’t the only non-custodial parents involved in the child support system.

“They’re just lazy” is definitely a simple answer requiring little thought. But it doesn’t solve solvable problems. For instance, sometimes work programs don’t work — especially when they don’t have sufficient resources to directly pay workers (or subsidize employment). An experimental forced work program in Texas found that some sites were largely failing to find men jobs. Across sites, employed participants were earning less money than men who simply found jobs on their own. Fathers who didn’t want to participate may have been labeled as lazy when they simply had better ideas about how to spend their time.

As a nation, we haven’t spent much time trying to understand men at the bottom of the economic ladder. One rare study examined a program largely serving low-income fathers of color. Unusually high numbers had untreated mental health and substance abuse issues. Many had criminal records that prevented them from getting work. Policies rooted in the laziness stereotype don’t solve any of these challenges.

Foreseeable Problems

It is certainly possible that a forced work policy could open doors to job training and new work opportunities. But so many ways things could go wrong. Conservatives are true believers in granting significant discretion to states. Gubernatorial and other types of candidates love “getting tough” on things that they associate with people of color — for example crime and the stereotypical “deadbeat dad”. Research continues to pile up on the failures of such policies but they have yet to disappear.

How many child support payments would a father have to miss before being forced into a work program? Two payments or twenty? There is a risk that a wide net will be cast.

For those already in a forced work program, what types of violations will result in a punishment? Perhaps a “get tough” policy would send someone to jail for being an hour late to work. What if a father gets sick and misses a whole day? Where will policymakers and/or judges draw the lines?

At some point, business owners will learn about this workforce that has to show up or face jail. Some may seek to establish contracts with governments. What would stop business owners from providing rock-bottom pay and piss poor working conditions?

But Is It Slavery Though?

There is a reason to be wary when the word “lazy” comes up in public policy. Here it is implied by the notion that there are a large group of people who must be forced into working. In the beginning, laziness was one of the justifications for slavery. Recently, it reared its ugly head in the battle over DACA. Wherever this adjective goes, oppression tends to follow.

Throughout American history, moneymakers have invented and reinvented ways to have absurdly unjust control over the labor of people of color. It’s called chattel slavery. It’s called sharecropping. It’s called chain gangs and prison labor. It’s called immigration without pathways to documentation and citizenship.

Is there reason to be on guard about a yet to be defined policy targeting people of color’s labor? Always.

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