The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 20, 2018

Administration’s budget proposal could be a double-edged sword for child support

February 20, 2018

Child support paid by noncustodial parents is a crucial source of income for children living in or near poverty, and gets little attention in discussions of mobility from poverty. But noncustodial parents (mostly fathers) who live in poverty often have difficulty paying the child support they owe.

The administration’s budget proposal includes some changes that could improve low-income fathers’ ability to pay child support and other changes that would likely make it worse.

To enhance fathers’ ability to pay child support, the proposal would allow states to use a limited share of federal child support funds to pay for employment services—including counseling, job readiness, job placement, and postemployment services—for parents who owe past-due child support.

Low-income fathers who can’t afford to pay the child support they owe could benefit from these services. Although boosting employment and earnings prospects for low-income fathers will require a more comprehensive strategy, the proposed investment of federal child support funds in this area is noteworthy.

But other proposed changes could harm fathers’ ability to pay the child support they owe and that their children need.

The administration’s budget proposal would allow states, for the first time, to require parents who owe past-due child support to engage in work activities, though it is not clear what states would require or what the penalties  would be for noncompliance.

The budget proposal also opens the door to new or enhanced work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), Medicaid, and public housing programs. Nondisabled parents who don’t have custody of their kids are sometimes categorized as “able-bodied adults without dependents,” who are often the focus of work requirements. For example, in Kentucky, which received approval in January to implement work requirements in its Medicaid program, four in five adults most at risk of losing coverage are so-called childless adults who are not living with a dependent child, a group that includes noncustodial parents.

In theory, work requirements seek to ensure that people aren’t avoiding work, but the red tape associated with work requirements can cause people to lose access to vital supports, even when they are working or should be exempt. When noncustodial parents lose access to these supports, their economic success and ability to financially support their children is threatened.  

We have seen in Medicaid and SNAP that even without work requirements, eligible people lose coverage because they don’t submit their paperwork on time, they don’t receive notices, or the office loses their paperwork. These things are likely to happen in documenting compliance with work requirements and exemptions.

It is also important to recognize that SNAP and Medicaid can help people keep their jobs. Most “able-bodied,” nonelderly adults receiving food and medical assistance are already working. The assistance helps them maintain their health and well-being when the jobs they can find don’t include health insurance and related benefits or pay enough to support themselves and their families.

Work requirements alone do not help people find jobs or leave poverty. Earlier research on work requirements in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) found modest employment increases that decreased with time and did not increase stable employment in most cases. Most TANF recipients also remained poor.

Changes to the child support system and other programs that enhanced the capacity of noncustodial parents to support themselves and their children would have positive effects on children’s health and well-being. Investments in job training promote this goal, but work requirements run the risk of being counterproductive.

Photo by Saklakova/Shutterstock.


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