When Child Support Goes to the Child and not the Government, Everyone Benefits

February 24, 2021 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors


This report is over a year old, but it’s still important to know about (Urban Institute, 8/28/19).  In San Francisco, a pilot study was conducted to gauge the effects of welfare forgiveness on child support payments.  The results are very much as we’d expect.  When non-custodial parents paying child support know that their payments are going to their kids and not to the government that made welfare payments to the custodial parent, everyone benefits.

The San Francisco child support debt relief pilot tested this possibility, and the results are clear. When parents’ public assistance debt is paid off, so 100 percent of their child support payments goes to their children, parents make more consistent and timely payments, children receive more financial support, parents’ employment barriers are reduced, and parents’ housing status and credit scores often improve. Parents’ relationships with each other and their children also improve. 

About 87% of parents ordered to pay child support are fathers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  And about 84% of those receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families are women.  So it’s fair to assume, as the linked-to article does, that the great majority of those adversely impacted by the current system are fathers.  The authors interviewed fathers owing child support to mothers who’d received TANF benefits.

The fathers who participated in focus groups explained that they felt they had to choose between paying formal child support to the state and directly supporting their children. When their income was insufficient to do both, the pull was to show their children they cared by providing for them, even when it meant falling behind in formal payments. Nonetheless, the 10 percent interest on reimbursement debt grew so quickly that even when fathers diligently paid their arrears, they had little hope they would ever be free of the haunting debt.

The other punitive consequences for parents falling behind in child support payments—such as revocation of driver’s and professional licenses, garnishment of wages and assets, and threatened jail time—are also counterproductive in increasing compliance with child support orders. Fathers in focus groups shared stories of the stress and punitive consequences of carrying child support debt and the reverberations in their ability to maintain employment, secure housing and transportation, access credit and manage their finances, and ultimately support their children. They described how it negatively affected their relationships with their children and coparents.

Contrary to the lingering notion of the “deadbeat dad,” those fathers often had to make a Hobson’s choice – between paying child support to the state’s child support authority and paying directly to the child’s mother.  If they did the former, they’d be credited for the payment and not incur any indebtedness and the corresponding interest the state charges, but the child and the mother would never see a dime of it.  If they did the latter, little Andy or Jenny would receive the money, but Dad would go into arrears, his drivers and occupational licenses would be threatened and he might go to jail.  Quite a choice, and it’s telling that so many of the dads chose to support their kids directly and take on themselves whatever punishments the government doled out.  Deadbeats?  I think not.

And, strictly as an aside, if the State of California wants to do right by non-custodial parents, it should do away entirely with the interest it tacks on to child support debt.  Ten percent is a fanciful number.  Essentially no investment pays anything like that and the people who amass child support arrearages are the poorest of the poor.  They can’t pay what they owe, much less what they owe plus ten percent.  As the Administration for Children and Families has been telling us since at least 2008, almost half of all child support debt is simply uncollectible and should be written off.  Adding a whopping interest obligation doesn’t make Dad any more able to pay.  On the contrary, it makes him all the more likely to simply throw up his hands in despair and disgust.

Meanwhile, the authors of the study take their own much deserved swipe at the “deadbeat dad” claim.

The pervasive narrative of parents’ shirking responsibility may lead some to reject the idea of forgiving the debt they owe the government, but this pilot adds evidence that the false narrative and the policies built on it contribute to the debt in the first place. This pilot’s evidence indicates and the fathers’ own testimonies corroborate the benefits of recognizing parents’ desire to support their children and empowering parents to provide that support by providing complete relief from their government-owed child support debt.

It’s a strange system.  When mothers receive TANF or other government benefits, the fathers of their children obviously receive nothing, but they still incur the obligation to repay money they never received.  What was never a loan to the mother becomes nevertheless a debt obligation to the father.  Meanwhile, payments they make, supposedly for their kids, are never seen by those kids.  It’s a system that’s bound to fail and has been for decades now.  Time for a change.

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