"The Costs of Child Support,"by Gabriela Sandoval March/April 2015 issue of Poverty & Race
Nate’s1 daughter is 3 years old. Shortly after she was born, he lost his job and his girlfriend enrolled in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Federal welfare laws required that his girlfriend assign her right to child support directly to the government in order to receive cash assistance. To this day, most of the money Nate pays to child support—when he is able to pay at all—is kept by the government.
Nate began accumulating child support debt from the moment the child support order was issued because he was ordered to pay an amount he could not afford, despite the fact that he was unemployed. He now carries “child support” debt owed to the government that grows with an interest rate of 10% (in California). Now, Nate pieces together work however he can, but he remains sporadically unemployed and chronically underemployed. When he has had work, he’s had his Earned Income Tax Credit intercepted. His driver’s license has been revoked. He has no benefits and cannot support himself on what is left after he makes his child support payments to the government. Without the ability to legally drive, he is in danger of losing what work he has. A year ago, Nate had nowhere to live, but now he relies on his mother while still struggling to find his own place. Nate wants nothing more than to be able to support his daughter financially and emotionally, but child support policy and practice makes this almost impossible in his fragile and tenuous employment situation.
The stress of this situation damaged his relationship with his girlfriend, and, although he shared caregiving responsibilities for his daughter during the year they all lived together, she has now moved out with their daughter.
In the aftermath of the murder of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO at the hands of a white police officer, there has been renewed attention to the economic policies in places such as Ferguson, where the poor are disproportionately targeted and criminalized, and governments at every level—from municipalities to state and federal levels—are at best generating revenue and at worst profiting from the economic plight of community members who live on the brink. These wealth-stripping practices exist in every aspect of life for people who struggle to make ends meet: from predatory and discriminatory lending practices in home and auto lending to “poverty violations” for drivers such as those for driving with a suspended license, expired plates or registration and failure to provide proof of auto insurance. The aggressive application of child support enforcement policy and practice to struggling noncustodial parents is another such damaging practice.
These forms of wealth-stripping have dire consequences for families struggling to make ends meet. When child support enforcement policy and practice is indiscriminately applied to low-income noncustodial parents who are unemployed or underemployed, it can destroy the possibility that these families will ever acquire assets such as a savings account, a home or even a car. The repercussions of a lack of assets for noncustodial fathers are not limited to him. Rather, they affect their sons’ and daughters’ chances of fulfilling their potential and otherwise limit their life chances. Trina Shanks has shown that both income and assets make a significant impact in reducing racial disparities in child outcomes. For example, small children perform better on standardized tests of academic achievement when their parents have a modest income in addition to some assets. Racial disparities in test scores are not present among households with incomes above 185% of the federal poverty level that also have a bank account and one or more financial assets, such as a retirement account.2 This highlights the importance of examining not only racial income disparities, but what are exponentially larger wealth disparities by race. While 41%of Black children live in households with no assets and only 2% of Black children live in households with at least 3 assets, only 7% of white children live in households with no assets and 21% of white children live in households with at least 3 assets.3
As of 2013, American parents owed $30 billion in child support debt to state and federal governments to reimburse benefits that their children’s households received from the TANF program and the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. If or when this debt is paid, the money will be kept by the government for reimbursement—the money will not go to the children or their custodial parents. According to the Center for Family Policy and Practice (CFFPP), “parents across the nation who are struggling to achieve basic economic security will pay an estimated minimum of $901 million per year to the government to reimburse the cash assistance that their children’s households have received.”4 This represents substantial financial resources drained from low-income parents—as well as from their children, families and communities.
When a poor mother seeks government support in the form of TANF cash benefits, the government, as noted above, is empowered to collect and retain a noncustodial father’s child support payments in order to reimburse the state for the cash assistance his children and their household receive. Typically, the government seizes most of his income and assets in cost recovery efforts. He can become mired in an inescapable cycle of debt that, far from helping him support his children, makes him less employable, unable to legally drive and too often makes him a target for incarceration and criminalization by the child support enforcement agency and family courts.
What is left out of the popular, but distorted, narrative of child-support dodging by noncustodial fathers (4 out of 5 noncustodial parents are men) is the ugly twist that child support enforcement takes when applied in low-income communities. The Insight Center (Oakland, California) and the Center for Family Policy and Practice (Madison, Wisconsin) collaborated last year to publish a study that examines the experiences of low-income, Black, noncustodial fathers with child support debt. The report, What We Want to Give Our Kids: How Child Support Debt Can Diminish Wealth Building Opportunities for Struggling Black Fathers and Their Families, found that for the men interviewed, child support acts as a debt that anchors them into a cycle of poverty with far-reaching intergenerational downward effects for their children, families and communities.
Our report is unique, in that it seeks to allow struggling Black fathers to speak for themselves and in their own voices about their experiences with child support policy and practice. The research is based on focus groups and interviews with 35 Black men in six cities and five states. All of the fathers owe child support, either currently or in the past, and many of them also owe substantial arrears. The men who participated in this study ranged from 19 to 55 years old and had an average income of $7,900 in the year before we spoke with them. This coincides with other research which found that a quarter of parents who are ordered to pay child support debt have no income and almost a third have annual incomes below $13,000.5
Our study confirms that child support enforcement policies and practices can have a devastating impact on the economic security of low-income Black fathers as well as their children and families. So much of these fathers’ income is garnished by child support enforcement agencies that they truly struggle to survive. Indeed, fathers in our study reported an average annual income of about $8,000 and their arrears averaged $23,000.
Furthermore, the debt—which, depending on the state, can grow with an interest rate of up to 12% 6 annually—is not dischargeable through bankruptcy and can become a debt anchor that serves as an obstacle to economic stability for whole families. Finally, this debt can have long-term implications, the extent of which we cannot yet fully appreciate as governments can garnish up to 65% of fathers’ Social Security benefits once they reach the age of 65. In other words, some men will accrue debt so large and unpayable that they still owe it—or will still owe it—when they are over 65 years old and subsequently have a majority of their Social Security benefits confiscated. This is very troubling given the significant role Social Security plays in keeping elders of color from abject poverty; in 2012, Social Security represented 90% or more of the annual income for 53% of unmarried, elderly Blacks and 31% for elderly Black married couples.7
Low-income fathers are forced to rely on in-kind support and often large, lump-sum payments from family members and friends who also have low incomes. Family and friends sacrifice their own economic security in order to ensure these fathers are not incarcerated for missing payments on the child support debt they are unable to pay. Indeed, support often comes from family members in the very same households that the fathers’ payments are meant to assist, as many of these men actually live with their children and their children’s mothers.
Five principal themes emerged from our study: (1) child support enforcement policies and practices can push poor families deeper into poverty; (2) child support enforcement policies and practices can interfere with fathers’ consistent engagement with their sons and daughters; (3) child support policies and practices can impede long-term financial stability; (4) aggressive child support enforcement can diminish job prospects; and (5) child support debt can compel a father’s relatives, partners and friends to jeopardize their own economic security.
To be sure, child support enforcement is often necessary. However, for men whose incomes are in the lowest 20%—and their families—there must be a better way.
More than 26% of child support debt nationwide is owed to the government. Our work leads us to support a set of bold policy recommendations that would go far to support low-income families. The first two recommendations are comprehensive:
All parents should be able to avail themselves of income and employment support, asset development and social welfare programs until they are able to support themselves and their children financially.
Jobs are fundamental. A Guaranteed Jobs Program combined with educational support could go far to improve the economic security of low-income families.
Some remedial steps that could also improve the lives of fathers, their sons and daughters and families include:
Child support orders should be based on parents’ actual income and assets. However, some child support orders are based on the presumed earning capacity of parents who are poor and jobless. Furthermore, fathers who are employed and lose their jobs must also be able to readily access modifications to their child support orders when their circumstances change.
Some of the poorest families do not benefit directly from child support payments when payments are seized by state and federal governments in cost recovery efforts. States should allow the whole amount of child support payments to go to families. In addition, state agencies should forgive existing child support debt that is owed to the state.
The practice of incarcerating low-income Black men is counterproductive to improving his and his family’s economic security. Incarceration limits future employment opportunities among men who face limited employment prospects and high levels of joblessness.
Child support should benefit children. When states redirect payments from children to government, it undermines the protection of children. Welfare cost recovery is in direct odds with child support’s mandate to benefit and protect the best interests of mothers and children.
If we believe in shared prosperity, then we must reimagine what it means to be a noncustodial parent. We must recognize that no policy, child support or otherwise, should be allowed to criminalize vulnerable populations and generate revenue at their expense. In the case of child support policies and low-income fathers, ultimately we are doing more harm to the children and families we intend to support.
1 In order to protect the confidentiality of the fathers who generously participated in this research, we removed any major identifying details and replaced their names with pseudonyms.
2 Insight Center for Community Economic Development. 2011. Diverging Pathways: How Wealth Shapes Opportunity for Children. http://www. insightcced.org/uploads/CRWG/DivergingPathways.pdf
3 Shanks, Trina & Sharon Simonton’s analysis of PSID data for the Insight Center for Economic Development, 2012.
4 Rodriguez, Nino, “My Brother’s Keeper, or My Brother’s Creditor? Part Three: How Child Support Debt and Government Reimbursement Can Financially Harm Young People of Color and Their Parents and Families,” p. 2, Center for Family Policy and Practice (CFFPP), November 2014,
5 Gardiner, Karen, Mike Fishman, Sam Elkin & Asaph Glosser. October, 2006. Enhancing Child Support Enforcement Efforts Through Improved Use of Information on Debtor Income. The Lewin Group. See Exhibit II.1, p.10. http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/07/CSE-enhancement/debtor/report.pdf
7 U.S. Social Security Administration. (2014). Social Security Is Important to African Americans. Baltimore, MD: U.S. Social Security Administration.
Gabriela Sandoval , a PRRAC Board member, is Director of Research and Chief Economic Security Officer, Insight Ctr. for Community Economic Development.
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