Most of the money many low-income Californians pay for child support does not reach their children; instead, it reimburses the government for public assistance their children have received. In California, 40 percent of child support payments are for debt owed to the government. What would happen if 100 percent of parents’ payments went to their children, rather than the government? What benefits would accrue to children and parents? 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.
Testing the effects of relieving government-owed child support debt
Recognizing the multiple challenges the public assistance payback policy creates, the state of California, the local child support agency in San Francisco, the city’s Financial Justice Project, and philanthropic partners collaborated to help low-income parents paying child support in San Francisco eliminate their public assistance payback debt.
Since before the pilot, parents had the opportunity to obtain debt relief through the state’s Compromise of Arrears Program (COAP), which allows eligible parents to make a partial payment toward their public assistance payback debt, and have the rest of their government-owed debt eliminated. COAP was created to ensure that children benefited fully from their noncustodial parents’ support payments. However, many parents find it difficult to make the partial payment required by COAP, and challenging to navigate the lengthy application process. To improve the system, the State has looked to counties to pilot different, innovative approaches.
Using philanthropic funding from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the pilot partners paid down the portion of pilot participants’ public assistance payback debt needed to eliminate their remaining debt through COAP. So participants received full debt relief through the pilot project. Moving forward, 100 percent of any payments made by the pilot participants will go to their families, as long as they remain current on their payments.
This pilot provided an opportunity to test the effect of debt relief on participating parents. With support from Tipping Point Community, an organization focused on fighting poverty in the Bay Area, the authors evaluated the debt relief’s effects on the parents’ compliance with current child support orders, employment, financial stability, relationships with their children, and other aspects of well-being.
Turning a challenging situation around and empowering parents to better support their children
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.
Relieving child support debt turned around this challenging situation, putting most fathers on a more constructive, productive path toward improved financial stability and well-being that allowed them to better support their children both financially and emotionally.
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.