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Parents told: Pay up or paint

Parents who fall behind on child support get a choice in Wisconsin: Pay up or paint park benches for 16 weeks.

Nearly four out of five come up with the money. The rest do painting or other maintenance or clerical work, attend parenting classes, spend time with their children and look for jobs. Those who refuse or backslide may be jailed.

Known as Children First, Wisconsin's get-tough experiment has brought results in two counties and has caught the eye of experts in Washington as the Clinton administration tries to overhaul the nation's welfare system.

President Clinton has promised to make child support enforcement a linchpin of his welfare reform plan, due by the end of the year. Only one-third of single parents now get any court-ordered child support, and billions of dollars ordered to be paid never are, says Clinton welfare adviser David T. Ellwood.

That money, Ellwood argues, could be used to lift single parents and their children out of poverty and off the welfare rolls.

"Non-custodial parents need to pay, they need to pay more, and they need to pay more frequently," insists Jean Rogers, Children First's administrator.

Wisconsin officials say their modest experiment, now in its fourth year in Racine and Fond du Lac counties, is paying off financially.

Gerald Whitburn, the state's secretary of health and social services, says it may ultimately make men and women think twice before having children.

"We have too many dads who father children without any real plans to look out for the financial responsibilities associated with parenting. And that's wrong," he says.

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