The Office of the Child Support Enforcement Agency (OCSEA) has recently released a report explaining that there has been a change in who is actually owed the billions of dollars in child support arrears. To be clear, child support arrears represent the amount of child support that remains unpaid, (OCSEA, 2014). Traditionally, when a family receives any public assistance, the state has the right to keep all of the money collected as child support for the children. Although not universal across the country, changes in the distribution of collections, has attempted to ensure more money is paid to Temporary Aid to Needy Families or TANF families. According to the OCSEA Fact Sheet (2014), the federal government will share in the cost of distributing all child support to families, except for child support paid to families receiving TANF. The failure to share in the cost related to TANF families only means that the cost becomes the responsibility of the noncustodial parent. Since most child support arrears are owed by parents with little or no income, this cost quickly becomes arrears once the noncustodial parent becomes unable to meet a child support obligation.
The underlying characteristics of individuals, who owe substantial amounts of arrears, have little or no income, (OSCEA, 2014). The drastic change in who is owed arrears should not be attributed to greater collection results from state agencies, but the decrease in the amount of families that actually qualify for and receive cash benefits from the government. Since the reform of the Aid for Dependent Children or AFDC program, the reconstruction has left many families ineligible to receive any public assistance. According to the Trisi and Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (2011), between 1995 and 2010, TANF caseloads declined by at least 27% in every state and by more than 50% in 36 states. Since most low-income families must sign their child support rights over to the government and most arrears holders have no income, it should be no surprise that TANF arrears have declined.
The government insists that the child support payment is repayment for TANF payments which are actually block grants. The new work requirements and time restraints along with other strict criteria only means that fewer low-income people are receiving financial assistance from the government. Although total arrears have seemed to remain stagnant over the past years, the TANF specific arrears have decreased over the years. OSCEA (2014) reported that TANF arrears declined in absolute and relative terms, falling from $33.8b to $29.6b. This decline is not due to more money being collected by poverty stricken people. It can be directly related to less people owing arrears based on receiving cash TANF benefits. The TANF-to-poverty ratio plummeted from 68 families receiving TANF for every 100 in poverty in 1996 to 27 for every 100 in 2010, (Trisi, et. al., 2010).
The decline in arrears for TANF cases can only be the result of fewer families receiving cash benefits, signing over rights to child support payments, and less noncustodial parents being required to repay the government for those benefits. Not surprisingly, removing the most vulnerable from social programs with no alternatives has simultaneously increased dug people deeper into poverty. According to the Varner, Mattingly, and Grusky of The Stanford Center of Poverty and Inequality (2014), the current poverty rates for the full population and for children rank among the very worst over 13 years since 2000 which are both ranked 11th. Again, the change in who is owed arrears should not merit congratulations to the agency. It seems that the main beneficiaries of the child support program are the entities that already have money, namely the governments.
The decrease in TANF arrears should not be celebrated but a rude awakening to the reality that the current child support system is broken. The system does little to lift families out of poverty and only ads to the amount of debt owed to the government. An already disadvantaged population has no chance of overcoming the hurdles of poverty when they must overcome huge amounts of debt from the beginning. Restructuring the child support system will ensure that all states pay 100% of child support collected to the families, This will do a greater justice to the nation rather than merely decreasing the arrears owed by poor parents. Reform is both necessary and essential in reducing poverty for American children and families.
Office of Child Support Enforcement (2014, March). Major change in who is owed child support arrears. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/programs/css/changes_in_who_is_owed_arrears.pdf
Trisi, D., & P, L. (2012, March 13). TANF weakening as a safety net for poor families. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from http://www.cbpp.org/files/3-13-12tanf.pdf
Varner, C., Mattingly, M., & Grusky, D. (2014). The poverty and inequality report. Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://www.stanford.edu/group/scspi/_media/pdf/pathways/special_sotu_2014/Pathways_SOTU_2014_Executive_Summary.pdf