Learning from the United States’ Painful History of Child Support
The United States’ child support program served 13.2 million children in 2021, with the goal of collecting money from parents, including those who don’t live with their children. Since the program’s inception in 1975, it has been closely intertwined with America’s views on public assistance and race—its implementation shaped to respond to the backlash against inclusive economic support for poor families. In order to create an approach to child support that truly increases children’s economic stability, the federal and state governments must move beyond this backlash. This Father’s Day, policymakers must consider the history of the child support program and how best to ensure that it helps, not harms, families.
The child support program started off as a federal-state partnership, with a goal of reducing expenditures of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. From 1935 to 1996, AFDC was a primary vehicle for economic support to families with children. The child support program collected money from noncustodial parents, most of whom are fathers, whose children relied on AFDC benefits. But this support did not go to children; instead, it was used to reimburse the government for AFDC benefits. For example, if a court ordered a parent to pay $100 every month in child support to a household that received $100 in AFDC money, the state kept the entirety of that $100 child support payment and shared it with the federal government. This “welfare cost recovery” effort remains in effect today: Though many states do now pass through a portion of these payments to custodial parents and children, in 2021, the government kept an estimated $1.38 billion in child support. This approach to cost recovery essentially requires poor, noncustodial parents to repay the federal government for the minimal cash aid their children receive, providing neither parents nor children with economic security. States should end these policies and refocus enforcement efforts toward providing services such as job training and placement, thereby lessening the punitive targeting of low-income men—and Black men in particular—and increasing the likelihood that child support programs lead to actual economic benefits for poor children and families.
Receiving child support payments is often essential for custodial-parent families, considering roughly 25 percent of them live in poverty, but targeting and punishing people who cannot pay does not help anyone. For the most part, the law does not consider whether parents avoid paying child support because they do not want to or because they cannot afford to; the debt accrues either way. Nearly all who are in arrears over child support have very low incomes: In one study in California, 80 percent of those in arrears had annual incomes below $20,000, and 60 percent had annual incomes below $10,000. As debt grows and enforcement measures are used, employment, housing, and familial bonds are all put at risk. Ruining the credit scores and suspending the licenses of low-income noncustodial parents can make it harder for them to achieve the financial stability they need to provide for their children, while incarceration makes it impossible.
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The child support system is built on a troubled history
The current approach to enforcement of child support payments is linked to the racist cultural history surrounding the so-called deserving poor—which has typically excluded Black people. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, AFDC became more readily available to Black families, which brought increased scrutiny of the program and, in particular, Black mothers. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then serving in the U.S. Department of Labor as assistant secretary, spearheaded the release of “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” This federal report linked the abundance of women-led households in the Black population to high rates of poor school performance, crime, and welfare dependency, and would shift the narrative on poverty from tackling structural barriers to focusing on a dysfunctional family narrative for decades to come. Then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan amplified this effect on the campaign trail in 1976: In an effort to gain support for defunding safety net programs, he villainized women who relied on public benefits.
In 1986, CBS aired a special report titled “The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America,” in which host Bill Moyers spoke with separated Black parents in Newark, New Jersey, and highlighted the high rates of out-of-wedlock births in the community. One of the parents featured a man who had fathered multiple children with different women and did not support any of them, stating that the mothers could rely on welfare. The report’s inclusion of the man reinforced well-known stereotypes and gained national attention, winning numerous awards and being shown in public schools. It created enough outrage over so-called deadbeat dads to inspire congressional action in the form of the Bradley Amendment, which forbade forgiveness of child support debts.
With the federal government and popular culture explicitly linking poverty, the need for federal economic support, and the structure of Black families, the term “welfare” became racialized. In contemporary survey responses, majorities of white people respond that too much money is being spent on “welfare” and not enough on “assistance to the poor,” despite those two concepts being essentially synonymous—and the fact that most people lifted above the poverty line by the social safety net are white. The economic support for poor families that began earlier in the 20th century contracted as the policymakers of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s bought into the idea of restricting access to AFDC and punishing noncustodial fathers.
Enforcement measures target Black men with economic and carceral punishment
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the federal government implemented multiple harsh enforcement measures within the child support program. These enforcement policies, which are still in effect today, range from garnishing up to two-thirds of noncustodial parents’ wages and suspending their driver’s and professional licenses to reporting their child support debt to credit bureaus and even incarcerating them. These policies have a long history of punishing people for being Black and poor. Overall, roughly 15 percent of all Black fathers in larger U.S. cities have been incarcerated at some point for nonpayment of child support, compared with 5 percent of fathers overall.
Some states and localities have taken enforcement even further. One example is Lee County, Mississippi’s Deadbeat Dad operation, in which a local newspaper compiled a list of the names of parents who owed child support, publicly shaming those who were behind on payments. Police apprehended a number of the parents who did not come forward, jailing them until they could make arrangements to pay. Unfortunately, raids like this happen across the country, often around Father’s Day.
Child support priorities must shift to better serve families
The Obama administration made an attempt to begin moving away from this punitive system, issuing a 2016 final rule from the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). This rule required states to take more rigorous steps to consider noncustodial parents’ ability to pay when determining child support orders, as well as whether to file civil contempt cases for missing payments, which could result in jail time. It also opened opportunities for modifying how much incarcerated parents would pay. Given the varying interpretations of the final rule, states have since implemented a range of policies.
However, the rule did not go far enough to ensure that the child support program properly acknowledges and assists poor, noncustodial parents. The system’s heavy reliance on punitive enforcement measures keeps it from realizing its true potential as a family service. Black parents in or near poverty make up the majority of parents who are missing payments, and parents with low incomes are more likely to pay little or no child support. Efforts to increase collections for children should center around ways to provide more resources to parents so they have the ability to meet their obligations.
One way to do this is to emphasize providing employment services to parents in need of good jobs, which some states already view as the best path forward. These services have been shown, when they have sufficient resources, to increase noncustodial parents’ earnings, increase payment compliance, and even improve attitudes toward the child support program. Providing employment services would require reworking the funding rules at the OCSE to make sure all states get enough federal help to manage successful programs. Additionally, states should implement full pass-through policies to guarantee that all collections go to children, as well as disregard payments from income so that they do not affect custodial parents’ public assistance benefits, putting an end to the legacy of child support welfare cost recovery.
It is time to recognize that noncustodial parents have endured decades of institutional violence that have trapped them, and therefore their children, in a spiral of economic deprivation.
The racist backlash to public assistance for families has informed child support policy for too long, and low-income parents, especially Black fathers, have had to face the consequences. It is time to recognize that noncustodial parents have endured decades of institutional violence that have trapped them, and therefore their children, in a spiral of economic deprivation. Policymakers must work to leave punitive enforcement efforts in the past and give children what they are owed, before another generation is forced to grow up in poverty.
The author would like to thank Arohi Pathak, Lily Roberts, Justin Schweitzer, Rachael Eisenberg, Marina Zhavoronkova, Nicole Lee Ndumele, Justin Dorazio, Rasheed Malik, Ashfaq Khan, and Anona Neal for their valuable support and feedback.
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