Why the SNAP/Child Support Cooperation Mandate is a Bad Idea

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Source:  United States Department of Agriculture

Kenya N. Rahmaan

Many people are aware of the mandatory cooperation with child support enforcement requirement imposed on parents when applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid.  Less known is that states can also mandate this same requirement in exchange for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits.  Currently, there are only six states that take advantage of the provision outlined in Section 6 of the Food and Nutrition Act, 7 U.S.C. of 2015.  Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a memo reminding states that this mandate was an available option for its SNAP applicants. The SNAP/Child Support requirement, according to Cornell Law School (2019), reads in part that:

“No natural or adoptive parent or other individual who is living with and exercising parental control over a child under the age of 18 who has an absent parent shall be eligible to participate in the SNAP program unless the individual cooperates with the state agencies administering the program established under Part D of Title IV of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C 651, et seq.).”

There are several reasons why the majority of states have chosen to ‘opt out’ of the available mandate.  One of the most significant reasons is that enforcing this requirement would literally take food out of the mouths of the most vulnerable children living in America.  Florida is one of the six states mandating cooperation from parents and needs to ponder the removal of the mandate.  To begin, in 2017, the state reported an overall child poverty rate of 20%, which increased for Black children to 21.9% (Children’s Defense Fund,  2018).  With elevated child poverty rates, legislators need to find solutions that would decrease this number. 

Instead and unfortunately, they are enforcing policies such as the mandated cooperation requirement for SNAP benefits, which actually harms children. Considering that Florida ranks #5 in the nation when it comes to economic ranking, it seems almost diabolical to apply this restrictions. It could be a contributing factor as to why such a large piece of its population reports suffering from hunger.  According to Catlin Nchako and Lexington Cai of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities or CBPP (2018), 11.9% of households were ‘food insecure’ or struggled to afford a nutritionally adequate diet.  Food insecurity is not only a national epidemic.  It is one that, sadly, impacts the entire planet. 

Food insecurity refers to the household level economic and social condition of  limited or uncertain access to adequate food, (Feeding America). With the SNAP program designed to assist with replacing food deficiencies for those struggling to meet this life sustaining need, it is counterproductive for states, like Florida, to make it more difficult to access these benefits.  During Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, Florida reported more that 64% of SNAP participants were families with children, (Nchako & Cai, 2018).  In comparison, Utah, Iowa and Nebraska are three states that provide at least 70% or more of their families with children SNAP benefits.  These states, unsurprisingly, have have reported the lowest rates of extremely poor children.

With the SNAP program reaching just over 3 million during FY 2017 in Florida, including almost 39% of families with elderly or disabled members and more than 44% working families, it is a wonder that legislators would not simply remove the  cooperation mandates altogether.  This removal would certainly assist in curbing the hunger crisis being experienced by the most unprotected Floridians.  According to Feeding America, it would take over $1.5 billion more per year to meet the food needs of Florida residents.  The USDA is obviously not considering these realities when urging states to enforce the SNAP/Child Support mandate.

Mississippi is a state that has had its share of problems including both record high unemployment and poverty rates.  In fact, according to Adam Barone of Investopedia (2019), Mississippi is ranked #1 for being the poorest state in the country when considering the median household income, poverty rate, and unemployment rate.  Yet, the state legislators force its food insecure citizens to cooperate with child support enforcement  when seeking benefits.  This requirement is enforced whether someone needs assistance once or for a few months. 

The requirement has proven destructive to Mississippi children, as they ranked #4 in child food insecurity during 2017 at 22.5%, (Feeding America). The average child food insecurity rate within the United States was slightly lower during the same year at 17%.  There are several known benefits offered by the SNAP program, which include food security and better health outcomes for the most financially disadvantaged children.  Officials must consider how removal of the cooperation mandate will benefit these children.  This considering that Mississippi ranked among the highest in the nation with 92,036 extremely poor children in 2017.

Instead, according to an article written by Dal Kalsi (2019), the USDA claims that enforcing this cooperation will encourage non-custodial parents and custodial parents to provide more children with the support they deserve.  This idea has been debunked by many experts, as most parents receiving public benefits have shown that when failing to provide, it is not based on blatant unwillingness to provide, but due to from lack of resources.   Unfortunately, it does not seem to matter who provides key information or what the information uncovers, officials will proceed in a manner that financially benefits the government.

Proof has been provided by The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) that the majority of non-paying, non-residential parents are sufferers from lack of income.   In a blog written by Joey Arthur of the OCSE (2018), he reported that 60% of debtors with more than $100,000 in arrears (debt) had no reported income in the National Directory of New Hires (NDNH).   The child support agency routinely fails to count all of the financial support that a parent may provide to their child, by dismissing these monies spent as ‘gifts.  Hence the mandates will not increase collection amounts significantly enough to justify states implementing the requirement across the nation.

Bear in mind that there are different criteria that a non-custodial parent must meet in order to be deemed eligible to receive SNAP benefits.  Individuals without dependents, who are over 18, and under 50 are limited to three months of SNAP benefits out of every three years unless they are working or in a work or training program 20 hours a week, (CBPP, 2018).  Since research shows that most parents receiving TANF and Medicaid benefits are already enrolled in the mandated child support program, the extra SNAP requirement is a burden instead of a benefit.  Especially when considering that the average monthly SNAP benefit for each household member is $115 or $1.26, the Federal government might consider encouraging the banning of the SNAP mandate so that more people are able to afford food.

A common denominator with all of the states that mandate the SNAP/Child Support cooperation is that none of the child support collected on behalf of ‘welfare’ families is ‘passed-through’ or distributed to those families. The National Conference of State Legislatures or NCSL (2017) explains that states have the option of allowing some child support payments to be passed-through to the parent and the child.  Currently less than half of the states have decided to pass-through full child support payments to families.  Instead they pay a portion which ranges between $50 and $200.  The $200 amount applies when a family has two or more children and only occurs in six states.  Distributing at least a portion of these collections would be paramount in helping to raise low-income and working poor families out of poverty.

Ohio is the another state to use as an example as to why states should not mandate the SNAP/Child Support requirement.  Not only does The Buckeye State refuse to pass-through any child support to its rightful owners, the state missed a chance to change this rule and the cooperation mandate in its new child support ‘reform’ laws.  Arguably, recycled is a more appropriate term (https://thechildsupporthustle.com/ohio-child-support-law-new-or-old-and-recycled/).  Surprisingly, Ohio lawmakers did not consider the high number of children living in poverty and choose to rescind the SNAP/Child Support mandate during the drafting and implementation of the ‘new’ law.

Paige Pleger (2018) wrote that about one in five Ohio children, roughly 513,000, lived in poverty in 2016.  When these statistics are dissected based on children living in extreme poverty, the numbers become even more unsettling.  According to Children’s Defense Fund, Ohio reported that 11.7% of its children under the age of six were living in extreme poverty.  The numbers increase, staggeringly, when separated by White, Hispanic, and Black children reaching  13.8%, 34.3%, and 42.1%, respectively.  This number will only increase with the state continuing to enforce the SNAP/Child Support cooperation mandate.

Given that states are granted the freedom to pay all, or at least part of, the child support collected to its rightful owners, the USDA must transfer its gentle nudge to an area that will better help the entire situation.  A nudge in a different direction would be a huge uplifting to the people residing within the Greater Cleveland Area.  Cuyahoga County has 18.6% of its citizens reported as being food insecure.  This population of people struggling with hunger is quite a bit higher than what has been reported for the state and nationally at 15.1% and 12.9%, respectively, (United Way Cleveland).  Clearly, the USDA has decided to turn a blind eye when it comes to these startling numbers.

One issue that needs to be addressed when demanding that states rescind the SNAP/Child Support mandate is quashing the stereotype that people receiving government benefits are lazy minorities, unwilling to contribute to their households and to their children.   In fact, the typical Ohio household receiving SNAP is White and headed by a working single parent, (United Way Cleveland).  Another statistic that brings up the question as to why Ohio enforces the SNAP/Child Support cooperation is the actual cost it takes to feed an Ohioan.  According to CBPP (2019), it costs a person an average of $1.35 daily or $123 per month with average monthly SNAP benefits for all households reported at $244.  Even with this amount being on the lower side, experts claim that this is simply not enough to feed the majority of citizens suffering from hunger insecurity.

According to Feeding America, the state of Ohio would require a little over $797 million more per year in order to meet food needs.  Considering this, the USDA needs to find ways to feed and not starve the people in need of this money.  Parents and citizens must fight back and let lawmakers know that barring extraordinary circumstances, SNAP benefits sustain hunger and should be provided without child support cooperation mandates.  This will help ensure that the nearly billion needed to meet food needs is, at least, being acknowledged and may be addressed at the state level. When examining the amount of money generated by the state through child support collections, legislators must consider investing the money into ensuring that more families are fed.

The cost effectiveness ratio, based on the OCSE (2016) is the total amount of child support collected on behalf of families in the child support program divided by the amount spent on the program.  Ohio has reported a substantial return-on-investment (ROI) between 2013 and 2017.  Although there was a decrease from $7.50 to $6.51, that is still an extremely profitable ROI.  Not to be outshined by Ohio, Mississippi touts its ROI in 2017 at $9.50, (OCSE, 2018). Based on the $5.51 profit yielded by the ROI by the Ohio government, it would have been beneficial to reduce that nearly $1 billion needed to feed the hungry.

ROI is only one source of revenue that states are able to benefit from when it comes to the child support system.  There are incentive monies that they receive as long as they meet the five performance goals mandated by the Federal government.  Ohio, for instance, received $28 million every year between 2013 and 2017, (OCSE, 2018).  States are supposed to spend this money in specific areas based on Section 458(f) of the SSA.  The Act,

 

“allows states to use their incentive payments to either “carry out the state plan” or  “for any activity” (including cost effective contracts with local agencies) approved by the Secretary, whether or not the expenditures for the activity are eligible for reimbursement under this part, which may contribute to improving the effectiveness or efficiency of the state program operated under this part.”

Unfortunately, Ohio does not reinvest its money into its low-income children, parents, and families.  The opposite has been found to be true as reported by a non-profit policy research institute. 

Ohio lawmakers have reduced state investment in programs to support struggling families, (Policy Matters Ohio, 2019).  This happens even though the legislators enforce the SNAP/Child Support cooperation requirement made available by the Federal government. Ohio would rather spend the money on tax cuts, tax breaks, and growing the states rainy day fund, (Policy Matters Ohio, 2019).  It’s clear that the state has money to benefit its wealthy residents.  That money can go to help SNAP families when they cannot, for whatever reason, meet the requirement to qualify for SNAP benefits.  By implementing real solutions and using the incentives, ROI, and the money being stashed in the rainy day fund, the most vulnerable will be helped and not go hungry.

Staying with the Midwest, Michigan’s SNAP/Child Support mandate is particularly burdensome on its low-income children.  Yes, the ROI is quite impressive reaching $5.56 in 2017, but there is something particularly interesting happening with the pass-through policy.  Previously, the state passed-through $50 per month of child support collected on behalf of their financially vulnerable families.  However, this amount decreased from $341 in 2013 to -$2 in 2017, (OCSE, 2018).  The reasoning behind this decrease to a negative amount is that Michigan officials decided to claim the child support collected for other reasons besides the children.  Yet, there was no overturning in the SNAP/Child Support mandate, which may have saved the state some money.

Michigan legislators discontinued implementing its $50 pass-through and disregard statute effective 10/1/2011 due to budgetary constraints, (NCSL, 2017).  It’s a wonder that the pass-through policy would be discontinued in an effort to increase budgets, when there are so many other ways that the state collects and retains money off of the backs of children.  One way that this is accomplished concerns how the state handles its undistributed child support collections.  To be clear, Michigan handles undistributed child support collections as if it were unclaimed property after a certain time has elapsed.  Based on Michigan Legislature Act 29 of 1995, 567.234, Section 14,

 

“Property held for the owner by a court, state, or other government, governmental subdivision or agency, public corporation, or public authority that remains unclaimed by the owner for more than 1 year after becoming payable or distributable is presumed abandoned.”

There is a process in place when child support payments have been determined escheatable.  According to the Michigan State Disbursement Unit or MiSDU (2015), escheatable is the transmission of unclaimed property to the State when the owner of that property is unidentified or their location is unknown.  There are three reasons provided by the state in which child support monies will be considered escheatable and they are the following:

  • an issued check is not cashed;
  • an issued check is undeliverable due to a bad address; or
  • the payment is unidentifiable if nether the MiSDU or the Friend of Court (FOC) can identify the sender or the intended receiver of the payment. (MiSDU, 2015)

The irony of this undeliverable aspect of the policy is that when the agencies are attempting to locate a person to establish child support cases or to arrest someone for allegedly failing to pay child support debt, there are systems available to find the person.  Instead, the state was able to claim, according to the OCSE, $151,089,179 in undistributed child support between 2013 and 2017.  This money could, very easily, been used to feed the hungry.  Especially when considering, according to Feeding Families, in 2017 alone, Michigan experienced an annual food budget shortfall of $652,838,000.  Yes, the undistributed child support money for the five years would be a drop in the bucket, but coupled with a lift on the cooperation mandate, there would have been an impressive decrease in the number of food insecure Michiganians.

Additionally, Michigan is the only state that requires child support cooperation in exchange for the more than three aforementioned public benefits.  Custodial parents are required to cooperate with the child support program in exchange for State Child Health Insurance (SCHIP) and child care assistance.  This begs the question as to why the state would end distributing the initial $50 pass-through to its low-income parents.  It could only be attributed to greed and the want to cushion its annual budgets.  And equally as important, why has the state failed to end the SNAP/Child Support mandate considering the high child poverty rate.

Based on KidsCount providing the most recent poverty rates in 2017, the rate for children living in 100% poverty around the country was 18% in comparison to 20% in Michigan.  Add this with the number of Michigan residents who participated in the SNAP program, legislators are clearly harming their constituents by continuing to mandate the cooperation requirement.  During FY 2017, more than 62% of SNAP participants were in families with children, almost 39% were in families with members who were elderly or had disabilities, and more than 46% were in working families, (CBPP, 2019).  The assistance required to help people should and can only be effective without the stipulations that continuously cripple the effort to become self-sufficient, decrease hunger, and help curb poverty to the most vulnerable American citizens.

Prior to the release of the USDA memo, the CBPP (2019) published a report explaining why child support and the mandate for SNAP benefits was a bad deal for for states and IMG-0025low-income households.   One reason that the mandate is a bad deal is because thousands of parents are survivors of domestic violence.  For this reason, every state has a ‘good cause’ clause and must offer a possible waiver within its guidelines explaining public assistance programs and mandatory cooperation requirements. A possibly unhealthy and dangerous problem occurs when survivors need SNAP benefits, but may be unaware of the possible waiver.  And let’s face it, there are many caseworkers that simply will not offer that information during the application process.

When exploring North Dakota and their cooperation requirements, there are stringent criteria for clients requesting a good cause waiver in order to be excused from suing the other parent for child support.  This includes, but is not limited to, proof of physical and/or emotional harm to the child or the caregiver applying for benefits.  Unfortunately, and according to the North Dakota guidelines (2011), mere belief that cooperation might result in harm is not a sufficient basis for finding “good cause.”   And the state has reported its share of domestic violence issues over the past few years.

There has been an increase in the number of reported new victim cases with 4,722 in 5,172 in 2017, (Caws North Dakota).  The increase did not, for some reason, send a red flag to the policy makers that the ability to receive public benefits, like SNAP, must be made easier for survivors of violent situations.  They should have made access more friendly and safe for possible recipients.  Not only did the number of cases reported that impacted children increase, the number of women who reported being pregnant at the time of their assault increased by 24. Unbelievably, North Dakota reported that during 2013 and 2017,  there were no child support cases opened with a ‘good cause’ determination, (OCSE, 2018). 

It is unrealistic to suppose that none of the women reporting domestic assault issues failed to apply for SNAP and other benefits. On the other hand, it is very realistic that the state did not grant one person a good cause exemption excusing them from participation in the child support program simply because a caseworker did not believe their claims.  We know that SNAP kept 14,000 North Dakotans out of poverty, including 6,000 children between 2009 and 2012, (CBPP, 2019).  Because of this, it is a wonder how many children went hungry because benefits were denied due to personal judgment of the assigned county worker.  Unfortunately, the answer to that question will forever be unknown.

Moving on, homelessness and food insecurities are proven to be linked issues which means that both must be addressed when examining the SNAP/Child Support mandate in every state.  This includes Idaho, one of the six states already implementing the cooperation mandate.  As recently as 2018, there were reports of an increase in the number of homeless students living within the state.  Those tasked with collecting this data are blaming rising housing costs for the increase in children reporting living in unstable housing situations.

The free breakfast and lunch programs are automatically free when a family is enrolled in the SNAP program.  According to Idaho.gov, between 2017 and 2018, 47% of students qualified for free and/or reduced priced lunches. For many of these children, school meals are their only meal source during the weekday.  National trends show that approximately 10% of students qualifying for free lunch may be living in homeless situations, (Idaho.gov).  Additionally, the SNAP program also serviced 10% of its state population in 2017.

That number grows significantly when exploring the number of families with children receiving SNAP benefits.  In FY 2017, more than 76% of SNAP participants were in families with children, (CBPP, 2019).  With the SNAP/Child Support strict criteria in its mandate, the USDA must conduct a study to cross reference homeless students and families being denied SNAP benefits due to failure to cooperate with child support enforcement.  That would assist in identifying who could be helped by rescinding the mandate.  By doing this, Idaho legislators could guarantee that homeless students would not be left hungry simply because a parent could not cooperate for any reason.

Idaho and every other state must make it easier for children to receive SNAP benefits so that they can be provided healthy meals on a daily basis.  This in light of the fact that the average monthly SNAP benefit for Idaho households with children is $397 or $1.25 per person, (CBPP, 2019).  The cost of a meal per person is even more important when considering that Idaho reported a ROI of $6.13 in 2017.  The $5.13 profit should have been used to feed the growing homeless population of children or assisted with decreasing the alarmingly high child poverty rate among its Black children reported by Children’s Defense Fund (2019) at 72.5%.

Instead, state leaders choose to enforce guidelines that ultimately further disenfranchise low-income citizens, especially children.  Idaho does this by forcing the cooperation with child support enforcement in exchange for almost every welfare benefit, refusing to distribute any of the child support collected to its families receiving welfare benefits, and failing to reinvest any profits or incentives into uplifting its poor citizens out of poverty.  Experts have proven year after year that making it more difficult to obtain public benefits, specifically SNAP benefits, is detrimental to both children and parents.  The USDA must use these six states as examples as to why the SNAP/Child Support cooperation mandate has to be removed immediately.

With all that is known about the harm that the SNAP/Child Support cooperation requirement cause to families with children, it is equally important to explore the possible reasoning behind the USDA pushing states to reconsider the imposition of the mandate.  And that is, of course, money.  Since the implementation of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA) of 1996 and the ‘reform’ of the child support system under former President William Clinton (along with bipartisan support), there were several new rules that were included in the bill.  One of the main rules was that the welfare program would have time limits determining how long a person could remain on the welfare roles.

While the Federal government has ‘graciously’ permitted the states to determine the lengths of time that a recipient can receive public benefits, it is specific on the time limits allowed nationwide.  States cannot provide cash assistance from the Federal TANF funds longer than 60 months to a family that includes an adult recipient, (CBPP, 2018).  This time limit many be extended in child-only cases at the discretion of the state and based on specific criteria.  Because of the five-year time limit, the number of TANF cases are declining, which directly affects the number of active child support cases.

For example, the number of the total caseloads with current assistance status declined by nearly 472,000 between 2013 and 2017.  Even more substantial is the decline of over 726,000 in formerly assisted cases.  This means a huge reduction in the money that the states can add to its wallet courtesy of the welfare mandate requiring recipients to sign-over their rights to child support payments to the state.  DID YOU KNOWMichiganWhen specifically identifying the amount of child support collected for current assistance cases, collections decreased from $908,280,972 in 2013 to $710,521,048 in 2017, (OCSE, 2017).  Naturally, the amount of distributed child support declined as well to just over $300 million during the same years.

As previously discussed, the ROI is extremely important to the overall profit of the government when comes to the child support programs.  This amount has also decreased nationally during the specified five-year period from $5.31 to $5.15, which is still a great profit for the $1 spent.  Based on these numbers and collection amounts on the decline, just like in any business, the government must explore other options to generate more money when experiencing a loss in profits.  It is obvious that the Federal government, through the USDA, has decided that its new stream of income should come through the SNAP program.

To further illustrate why states must refuse the SNAP/Child Support mandate and instead use the money already collected to assist families and children, Texas can be used as the perfect model.  Texas is one of the states that has decided to pass-through $75 of child support collected on behalf of families receiving TANF grants.  However, just as the number of current assistance cases have declined, so has the amount of money being distributed.  The state passed-through $1,448,754 in 2013, however this amount took a drastic dive to to just $619,636 in 2017, (OCSE, 2018).

Instead of attempting to increase the pass-through amount by updating the statute to benefit families, Texas has taken a different and arguably, more expensive approach.  Government officials overseeing child support operations within The Lone Star State decided that it was time to upgrade the computer system used by the child support agencies.  The computer system upgrade, dubbed T2, began in 2007 and was supposed to cost taxpayers $220 million upon completion.  Currently, the upgrade is still incomplete, and the cost has ballooned outrageously,

Based on an article published by Dallas News (2019), the project to upgrade computer software used by the Texas Attorney General’s office for child support enforcement is now 18 months late, with a price tag that nearly doubled to $420 million.  Considering the money that has already been overspent and with there being no completion date in sight, several officials are demanding that the project be aborted immediately.  This means that hundreds of millions of dollars will be wasted and this while Texans suffer from hunger rates higher than the national average.  According to Scott Morgan (2018), nearly 2 million households are considered “food insecure” by the Department of Agriculture.

By forcing Texas to implement the mandate, there is a no guarantee that child support collections will increase.  Yet, it has been proven that more children will fall into the food insecure category.  With a ROI reported in double digits for the past few years, if any state can afford to continue ignoring the SNAP/Child Support mandate, it would definitely be Texas.  The state needs to examine more ways to assist its low-income, poor, and working families who rely on SNAP benefits instead of spending hundreds of millions in an attempt to reduce paperwork within child support offices.  Hopefully, all states will consider removing the mandate while ensuring that the SNAP program becomes more family friendly and cost-effective for the families.

In conclusion, the USDA must examine its own data before recommending that states enforce the SNAP/Child Support cooperation mandate. It is not enough to simply state that the agency thinks that enforcing this requirement will force parents to not only pay child support but increase the payment amounts.  Statistically, parents are paying what they can and when they can.  If they are denied the basic food benefits supplied by the SNAP program, most will be unable to provide the little that they can still afford, while suffering to provide for their own basic needs. Food insecurity is an epidemic plaguing the United States and every state reports its own food shortcomings.  As people pull themselves out of poverty, there needs to be more help from the government, and not a metaphoric rope pulling people back down.

 

References:

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