“Have You Heard of This?”

IMG-0844The child support system changed when the welfare system was ‘reformed’ in the late 1990s.  With the support of both major parties, Former President Bill Clinton was able to pass The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which according to many government officials, would change welfare ‘as we know it’ in the United States.  According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) (1996), the Act was:



“ a comprehensive bipartisan welfare reform plan that will dramatically change the nation’s welfare system into one that requires work in exchange for time-limited assistance.  The law contains strong requirements, a performance bonus to reward states for moving welfare recipients into jobs, state maintenance of effort requirements, comprehensive child support enforcement, and supports for families moving from welfare to work-including increased funding for child care and guaranteed medical coverage.”

With the passing of this bill, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) replaced the Aid to Families with Dependant Children or ADFC and the child support system changed drastically.  To be clear, TANF is a support service program that is supposed to provide financial and medical assistance to needy dependent children and the parents or relatives with whom they live, (Benefits.gov).  Not only were enforcement tactics amplified in order to locate possible non-custodial parents, establish paternity, and to collect child support payments from absent fathers, there were new requirements for custodial parents receiving TANF benefits.    One of the most significant requirements of all custodial parents receiving TANF and Medicaid benefits is that he/she must sue the non-custodial parent for child support. Failure to meet this requirement, absent a ‘good cause’ exemption, is denial of benefits.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) (2013), under Federal law, all TANF clients are required to cooperate with state authorities in child support and establishment efforts.  When custodial parents apply for benefits, they are mandated to assign the rights to child support payments over to their respective state. By assigning their rights over to the state, he or she is granting permission for the state to file a lawsuit against the other parent which allows the state to retain any child support collected on their behalf.   Some states have the authority to pay or ‘pass-through’ some or all of the child support received to the TANF family, however, there are no jurisdictions in the US that completely pass-through the full amount of child support collected.

As of 2019, 26 states refused to pay any child support collected on behalf of families receiving public benefits to those families.  The remaining jurisdictions have different pass-through regulations which vary from paying $50 for one child and $200 for two or more children in most states to a  couple of states that claim to pay the full child support amount to the families. Colorado and Minnesota both report to pay the full amount of support, however, the statutes include very specific rules.  For example, Colorado as a state claims that it pays all child support to these vulnerable families, however, the decision of whether to actually pay the full amount of support collected is left to individual counties.  Minnesota, on the other hand, will only pay the full amount of support to the families after any permanently assigned arrears have been paid-in-full. And even after the arrears have been satisfied, the child support paid to the family will not exceed the monthly TANF amount.

Since the states ‘own’ any current and future child support payments collected on behalf of low-income and poor families receiving public benefits, the concept that the PRWORA and the child support reformations in the 1990s were implemented for ‘the best interest of the child’,  is a myth. By forcing already struggling single parents to assign their current and future rights to child support payments over to the state is financially damaging to the custodial parents as they attempt to lift themselves out of poverty. Equally as damaging is leaving the decision to pass-through any of the child support collected to those same vulnerable families up to the discretion to state officials.  The reforms have, however, been substantially beneficial for the state and federal governments.  

The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) continuously boasts about being one of the most cost effective government programs today.  In FY 2016, the program collected $5.33 for every $1.00 spent, compared to $5.26 in FY 2015, (OCSE, 2017).  Even with the decrease to $5.14 reported nationally in FY 2018 Preliminary Report to Congress, the return on investment by the child support program still remains one of the top performing programs.  And that is to be expected when the states are retaining large portions, it not every penny of child support payments collected. But this is not the only reason given for the program consistently being praised as a top performer.  

According to the OCSE (2016), a study of administrative data in Washington found that regular child support payments were associated with a reduced likelihood of custodial parent’s welfare use and an increased likelihood of custodial parent employment.  It is important to note that this statement is based on a study conducted by the Washington State Department of Human Services which means that the study sample was quite small compared to those that would result from a national study. Secondly, with the passing of PRWORA, one of the more impactful changes to the welfare program was the time limit clause placed on receiving those TANF benefits.  The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) (2018) wrote that, while states can set their own time limit policies, they cannot provide cash assistance from federal TANF funds for longer than 60 months to a family that includes an adult recipient.

Based on the time limit constraint and the child support cooperation mandate for all recipients, receiving child support payments would, absolutely.  result in a lower number of custodial parents using welfare. Quite simply, custodial parents could not receive child support and welfare based on the statutes.  Once they left welfare, either by choice or by force, the child support payments would continue because of the judgment that had been ordered on behalf of the state to recover welfare costs.  Additionally, because custodial parents were not permitted to remain on TANF after the time limits expired, there was little choice left but to obtain employment. Notice that the employment increase does not include whether newly obtained employment provided enough to lift a family out of poverty, especially considering that even after the family has left the welfare roles, the child support payments still belong to the government.

To answer the question posed by the commenter, yes, I have heard of this.  ‘This’ being the way that the government forces custodial parents, who are in need of financial assistance, to forfeit their rights to child support payments over to the government.  I have personally experienced the transformation under the PRWORA and how the state of Ohio traded an extra $50 in TANF benefits for the assignments of all rights to current and future child support payments over to the state.  I have been forced to endure horrible treatment when I asked, and later demanded, that ‘my’ child support case closed. And even though I had relocated to a different state and no longer received TANF or any other public benefits in either state, it would eventually take me eight long years to close the child support case in Ohio.  ‘This’ is one of many reasons that I wrote my book, The Child Support Hustle and founded The Reform Child Support NOW! Movement. The child support system benefits the government in far greater ways than it was ever intended to benefit the children. Keep Fighting!


Benefits.gov. (n.d.). Welcome to benefits.gov. Retrieved from https://www.benefits.gov/benefit/1679

Center for Budget and Policies Priorities. (2019, July 15). Policy basics: An introduction to tanf. Retrieved from https://www.cbpp.org/research/policy-basics-an-introduction-to-tanf

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2013, April 1). Child support 101: State administration. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/child-support-adminstration.aspx

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2017, July 18). Child support pass-through and disregard policies for public assistance recipients. Retrieved December 8, 2019, from http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/state-policy-pass-through-disregard-child-support.aspx

Office of Child Support Enforcement. (2016, December). The child support program is a good investment. Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/programs/css/sbtn_csp_is_a_good_investment.pdf

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. (2016, September 2). The personal responsibility and work opportunity reconciliation Act of 1996. Retrieved from https://aspe.hhs.gov/report/personal-responsibility-and-work-opportunity-reconciliation-act-1996