In 2020, County Executive Joe Parisi announced that Dane County would end a practice in which the county bills the fathers of some children for half the costs of giving birth.
That’s the so-called “birth tax,” which seeks to recoup half the cost of childbirth from fathers, in cases when the mothers are unmarried and on Medicaid coverage.
None of the money recouped goes to child support. Instead, it goes to the state and especially county governments, helping fund child support agencies even though the money is not child support and does not go to families. In Dane County, some of that money also goes to court commissioners.
At the time, Parisi called the birth tax “controversial”, citing the stark racial disparities that exist with the practice. After he promised to end the practice, he was lauded with an award.
But a new report by public interest attorneys finds that Dane County has continued to aggressively collect judgements.
That report was released yesterday by ABC for Health, a nonprofit Wisconsin law firm promoting health equity. It found that statewide, counties have recouped over $106 million from the practice.
Dane County alone has recouped almost 7 million dollars.
Bobby Peterson is the executive director of ABC for Health. He says that on top of going after low-income individuals, the practice facilitates racial disparities.
That comes as Wisconsin holds the highest Black infant mortality rate in the entire county. Peterson says that, while the birth tax is not the sole cause of that statistic, it’s certainly contributing.
“It is a contributing factor, because we know that prenatal stress for a pregnant person is not good,” Peterson says. “It does not help create a positive birth outcome. It creates a lot of challenges, and dealing with things like the birth tax, and child support agencies pursuing your partner, it causes stress and strife.”
In Wisconsin, 88% of Black mothers on Medicaid were unmarried during the child’s birth, meaning that all of those families may be subjected to the birth tax. That’s compared to about 58% of white mothers on Medicaid during the same period.
Meanwhile, a 2019 report finds that in Dane County, black babies die at at least double the rate of white babies. Public Health Madison Dane County, which issued that report, attributes that to social and economic challenges caused by discrimination and structural racism for Black mothers.
County child support services will go after a father if they are unmarried, and appear to be out of the life of the child. But this is not always apparent, such is in the story of Maria in the report.
Maria received a notice from her county’s child support agency, requiring her to disclose the name of the father or be kicked off Medicaid. After putting it off for one week, Maria received another letter telling her that collection would be taking place, despite the fact that the father was her boyfriend, who would both care for and financially support the new baby.
And while the practice is billed as a way to keep absent fathers involved in the life of the child, Peterson says that the collections aren’t child support.
“This is a birth tax,” Peterson says. “This is about, (them) taking birth expenses to the state, to the federal government, and the county gets a cut. None of it goes to the family or the child, it’s a completely different process.”
The mother is still able to ask for child support in these situations, meaning that not only does the father pay money to help support the child, but also to the government.
And while Dane County put the breaks on new actions in 2020, they doubled down on their previous ones, literally.
According to the report, the county took in around $1.2 million dollars from the birth tax in 2019. But in 2020, when they said they would halt the collections, they collected around $2.2 million dollars from judgments initiated before 2020, especially as the practice can take years to work through the courts.
Dane County’s Child Support Agency, which implements the policy, did not return a request for comment today. Neither did County Executive Joe Parisi.
According to the report, Wisconsin is one of few states to pursue the birth tax, and is the most aggressive in the nation. And while not all counties pursue the birth tax, . Milwaukee ranks the top collector of birth tax money, currently sitting at over $69 million, while Dane County ranks at number two at almost $7 million.
Photo courtesy: Zack Vessels / UNSPLASH