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Family Law – Questioning Child Support Enforcement Policy for Poor Families

Excerpted from Questioning Child Support Enforcement Policy for Poor Families,
Leslie Harris

American law and culture have always assumed that providing for children economically is a private obligation, ordinarily belonging to the parents. The principle was given real teeth in 1975, when Congress enacted the federal-state child support enforcement program. The legislation’s two related goals were to reduce childhood poverty and to reduce the welfare rolls. The goals were linked by the assumption that childhood poverty is largely attributable to the failure of absent parents (overwhelmingly fathers) to pay their fair share of child support, even though they are able to do so.

Most of the poorest children in the child support program are born to unmarried mothers. Therefore, the federal legislation mandates that states undertake vigorous efforts to establish paternity when necessary, and then to establish and collect child support. In return, the federal government handsomely subsidizes the states’ efforts. A state that did not comply with the federal requirements would lose federal funds for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Federal welfare policy originally assumed that custodial mothers would stay home to care for their children with support from the state as needed. The welfare reform legislation, passed in 1996, rejected this assumption, replacing it with the norm that virtually all parents, including those with infants, will work. The legislation is founded on the expectation that single parents should be able to support their children through work and child support and without public assistance.

The 1996 welfare reforms were successful in reducing the number of people receiving TANF, at least until the Great Recession, but considerable evidence shows that the reforms have failed to reduce child poverty. In 1975, the year the legislation creating the child support enforcement program was enacted, 17 percent of children younger than 18 lived below the federal poverty line. The rate rose to 20 percent from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s and declined to as low at 16 percent in the early years of the twenty-first century. However, in 2009, the rate once again climbed to 20 percent, compared to approximately 14 percent for the country as a whole.

Moreover, information from a longitudinal study of about 5,000 children born in urban areas in the United States, called the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, shows that child support enforcement practices are harmful to many poor non-marital children and their custodial mothers, in some cases reducing economic support from the fathers and disrupting the fathers’ relationships with the children. Given these perverse and harmful effects, I argue that child support enforcement policy and practices as applied to families in which the parents are unmarried and poor should be rethought and reformed.

Some aspects of the child support program intended to increase paternity establishment have been very successful. The paternity establishment initiatives have increased the number of children with legal fathers, and more importantly, allow unmarried parents to identify themselves as families. Therefore, these provisions of the program should be retained and strengthened. By the same token, “responsible fatherhood” programs may help absent fathers, particularly young and unmarried ones, learn how to be good fathers and to cooperate with their former mates to raise their children. Therefore, these programs should be encouraged. However, because trying to collect cash child support from poor fathers is largely unsuccessful on its own terms and undermines the relationships between the fathers and their children, these efforts should be curtailed. Instead, the child support program should encourage absent fathers’ efforts to provide for their children voluntarily, both by paying money and by giving non-cash assistance.

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