Child Support and Welfare

Since enactment in 1996 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), a major impetus to collection of child support in the United States is the Welfare law. A Custodial Parent receiving public assistance (Temporary Aid to Needy Families or TANF) is required to assign his or her right to child support to the Department of Welfare before cash assistance is received. Another requirement is that the custodial parent must pursue child support from the non-custodial parent .

Where successful, the child support is then diverted to the welfare program instead of the custodial parent as partial reimbursement of the cash assistance being paid. If the amount of child support paid equals or exceeds the assistance grant, the family is moved off the cash assistance portion of the program (they may still be eligible for food stamps and medical assistance). Other provisions of PRWORA require the custodial parent to find employment and will assist that parent in finding and maintaining such employment (such as buying new work clothes or repairing a vehicle to get them to work). If the custodial parent becomes employed, their cash assistance will be reduced based on the amount of income received. If child support is also being paid, the chances are that it will then be greater than the assistance grant and the family will move off the welfare rolls (at least as far as cash assistance is concerned) . The child support enforcement programs in all 50 states are primarily funded by the federal government through each state’s Department of Welfare. Should a state’s handling of child-support enforcement not comply with PRWORA standards, that state’s program funding can be reduced by 5% as a penalty.


Despite the claims of some that PRWORA and it’s welfare connection are generating government income through child support collections, the US Department of Health and Human Services reports that in fiscal year 2003, 90% of child support collections went directly to families. In fact, the percent of payments going to families was 86% or more in 47 states and in seven states exceeded 95%. Only the remaining 5-14% reimburses taxpayers for the cost of welfare expenses.


Nevertheless, half of current unpaid child support debt is owed to the government and not to families. Sherri Z. Heller, Ed.D, Commissioner of U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement stated, “We need to be more aggressive about leveraging older debt owed to the government as an incentive to obtain more reliable payments of current support to families.” Towards this end, the United States federal government, through the Social Security Administration, provides up to $4.1 billion in financial incentives to states that create support and arrearage orders, and then collect (cf. 6B, 6C, & 6D).


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