California’s child support system is failing to realize what should be its sole purpose: support children. Each year, hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty do not receive all of the child support payments made by their parents. When a single parent signs up for certain public benefits in California, such as CalWORKs or Medi-Cal, they are required to sign over their rights to their child support payments to the government. Families only receive the first $50 of their monthly child support payment; the rest is intercepted by the government to pay back the cost. Additional harmful policies are also in current practice if a non-custodial parent cannot make a payment due to financial hardship.
This is a racial justice issue as these policies disproportionately strip resources from children of color and the families and communities in which they live. Due to generations of disinvestment and systemic barriers, children of color are more than three times as likely as white children to receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or locally known as CalWORKs, and therefore are more likely to have their child support payments intercepted. More than two-thirds of the children impacted by these policies are children of color.
Current law requires that low-income families who receive public benefits only receive the first $50 of their monthly child support payment; the rest is intercepted by the government to pay for the cost of public benefits, like Medi-Cal and CalWORKS. In fiscal year 2020, California redirected $430 million in child support payments away from children to unjustly recoup costs of public assistance. Money intended to pay for a child’s household needs and expenses – groceries, school supplies, clothing and bills – is instead redirected to the government (read Ronnell’s story here).
These policies create a multitude of harms. In a state with one of the highest child poverty rates, these policies take valuable resources from low-income children and disproportionately harm children of color, as more than two-thirds of the children impacted by these policies are children of color. They create conflict in families as the custodial parent doesn’t know how much the noncustodial parent is actually paying. And for non-custodial parents, they cause parents to quickly accrue debt to pay back the cost of public benefits. The median income of a parent paying back this debt is less than $15,000 a year. Research has found that, 95% of debt is unlikely to be collected, owed by someone who is very poor, with old debt, or who lives out of state. Low-income parents owe $7 billion in debt to pay back the cost of welfare in California.
These policies perpetuate systemic racial and economic inequalities that:
- Strip valuable resources from low-income children and disproportionately and overwhelmingly impacts families of color.
- Create conflict and drive families apart.
- Push parents out of the formal economy. Research shows these policies push parents out of the formal economy, as up to two-thirds of their wages can be garnished.
- Lead to billions of dollars of uncollectible debt.
- Keep families in poverty. Debt leads to wage garnishment, a downgraded credit score, driver’s license suspension, and contempt orders.
While the State cannot change federal rules that require single parents on public assistance to sign over their rights to child support, California can change how we implement it as other states already have.
- Send 100 percent of parents’ child support payments to children, not the government.
- Eliminate interest on public assistance payback debt so more resources go to children. California’s 10% interest rate, one of the highest in the country, balloons the debt to levels that are hard for low-income parents to repay.
- Write off all outstanding public benefits repayment child support debt, since 95 percent of it has been deemed difficult to collect or uncollectible. Ensure child support orders are based on parents’ financial circumstances. (see video below)
- The state should also require $0 child support orders for parents under 18, who are not legally eligible to work.