Thousands of poor and disabled men stand to lose their only income next year because of a change in government policy that will allow states to seize every dollar of federal benefits from people who owe back child support.
Previously, states could capture only 65 percent of benefits from people who opted to be paid by paper check. Advocates estimate that 275,000 men could be left destitute as a result of the change.
The concern is an unintended consequence of the Treasury Department's decision to pay all benefits electronically, including Social Security, disability and veterans benefits, starting next year.
A separate Treasury Department rule, in place since last May in a preliminary form, guarantees states the power to freeze the bank accounts of people who collect federal benefits and owe child support.
By allowing seizure of the remaining 35 percent of benefits, the rules could cause thousands of poor men to lose their only income.
"It's kind of Orwellian what's being set up here for a segment of the population," says Johnson Tyler, an attorney who represents poor and disabled people collecting federal benefits. "It's going to be a nightmare in about a year unless something changes."
In many cases, the bills are decades old and the children long grown. Much of the money owed is interest and fees that add up when men are unable to pay because they are disabled, institutionalized or imprisoned.