II. Child Support, Public Welfare, and the Shift from Public to Private Responsibility for Poor Children's Economic Needs
The federal child support program originates in, and is historically linked to, the public welfare system. Indeed, the passage of the first federal law in this area, the Child Support Act of 1974, was prompted by concerns about sharp increases in government welfare expenditures on behalf of poor women and their children. As part of the Social Security Act of 1935, Congress established the federal welfare system, Aid to Dependent Children (later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC), a means-tested cash assistance program. AFDC was modeled on the then existing Mothers' Pension welfare programs, which states established between 1910 and 1920. At that time, advocates for government aid for poor mothers and children championed the value of mothering and argued that mothers would best serve their children's well-being by caring for them in their own homes. These advocates urged that without government aid to poor mothers and children, family destitution would result, causing institutionalization of children in orphanages, child neglect due to maternal employment outside the home, or the children themselves working long hours in factories alongside their mothers. Like Mothers' Pensions, AFDC provided small cash benefits to poor single mothers. However, eligibility was broadened under AFDC. While Mothers' Pensions were primarily reserved for widows, mothers qualified for AFDC assistance if the family lacked a male wage earner because of death, desertion, or incapacity.
In practice, however, local welfare officials did not base their eligibility determinations under AFDC solely on applicants' economic needs. From the 1940s through the early 1960s, applying morals means tests, caseworkers limited welfare caseloads by ensuring that only the most deserving mothers received benefits. States defined eligibility criteria narrowly, and applying suitable home, man in the house, and substitute father rules, AFDC caseworkers exercised considerable discretion, by subjecting applicants and recipients of AFDC benefits to intrusive and judgmental supervision of their parenting, morals, and home environment. Nonmarital cohabitation and childbirth were among the most common restrictions, and caseworkers conducted surprise visits to welfare recipients' homes in the middle of the night in order to find out if there was a man in the house. Termination or reduction of benefits was often the penalty when caseworkers determined that mothers violated these rules.
The 1960s brought an end to these exclusionary practices. Challenges by activists and lawyers succeeded in dismantling the arbitrary barriers to welfare access. Welfare became a statutory right, and welfare agencies applied a uniform means test to determine applicants' eligibility for benefits. Welfare caseloads quickly soared, and in a ten-year period (from 1961 to 1971), the number of recipients increased threefold (from 3.5 million to 11 million). The expanded rolls of welfare recipients included so many Black single mothers that by 1961 the AFDC program, which had been eighty-nine percent White in 1939, became forty-four percent Black. Another significant demographic shift in the welfare population was the marital status of recipients. Whereas the majority of recipients previously were widowed mothers, by 1961, widowed mothers made up less than eight percent of the welfare caseload, and instead, the typical recipient was more likely to be divorced, separated, or never married.
Increased welfare costs resulting from the tremendous growth in caseloads as well as the shifting demographics of recipients drew public attention, and politicians made calls for reform. Critics viewed the exponential increase in welfare expenditures as problematic, particularly because public monies were being provided to unworthy single mothers. Also, because recipients were more likely to be divorced or never married than in years past, policymakers began to view absent fathers as the individuals ultimately responsible for the increase in welfare costs and looked to them as a potential source of economic support for the families. Congress's desire to reduce AFDC costs motivated its interest in increasing support from fathers.
The federal government thus ventured into the arena of child support with the passage of the Child Support Enforcement Act of 1974, which established the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) and mandated the creation of state-level counterparts administered in compliance with specific federal guidelines. Importantly, the Act required that custodial AFDC parents assign to the state their rights to collect child support payments and that the funds collected on behalf of AFDC families be used to reimburse the government for welfare benefits paid to the families. If AFDC families did not have a support order in place, they were required to cooperate with states' efforts to establish support orders by, among other things, identifying putative fathers in cases of nonmarital births. Additionally, states used all child support collected on behalf of AFDC families to reimburse the government for the cost of welfare expenditures. Consequently, for AFDC families, whether the noncustodial parents paid child support did not matter, because their financial situation remained the same either way.
Amendments to the Child Support Act in 1984 and 1988 further expanded the Act's scope. The amendments allowed non-welfare families use of state child support offices' services and required states to strengthen paternity establishment, create and utilize child support guidelines in setting orders, and implement wage withholding to increase collections. Moreover, the 1984 enactment established a distribution scheme for child support collected on behalf of AFDC families. Specifically, families received the first fifty dollars of child support collected, and the federal and state governments shared any remaining funds necessary to reimburse themselves for welfare benefits paid to the families. The purpose of this change in the law, referred to as a pass through of current child support collected, was to incentivize parental cooperation with the child support system while continuing the practice of offsetting welfare expenditures.
Despite the efforts of these wide-ranging provisions, improvements in child support enforcement were only modest, and collections overall were insufficient. In light of these deficiencies, calls for reform of the child support system intensified and arose alongside a broader debate concerning overhaul of the federal welfare system. Unlike other aspects of welfare reform, members of both political parties enthusiastically joined the crusade to crack down on delinquent fathers. Although both parties supported the idea of tougher child support enforcement, conservatives and liberals had different goals in mind. Conservatives emphasized the need to get tough on absent fathers by requiring them to live up to their financial responsibilities to their children. Liberals and moderates, on the other hand, tended to emphasize the goal of utilizing child support to enhance the financial well-being of low-income single-parent households.
Much public attention was focused on the economic plight of single-mother families and the failure of absent fathers to provide for their children. The figures were sobering. Nearly half of all single mothers and their children lived in poverty, and about the same number relied on welfare to make ends meet. They received almost no financial assistance from noncustodial fathers. Most fathers did not pay any child support whatsoever, and for those who did, the amounts were meager. Even more troubling was data regarding child support receipt in single-parent households. In 1994, as the public, policymakers, and Congress debated competing proposals for welfare reform, only twelve and one-half percent of single-parent families receiving welfare were also receiving child support. Advocates for reform, including liberals, conservatives, and even some feminists, believed that the availability of child support from noncustodial fathers would raise some families above the poverty threshold.
Against this backdrop, the child support reforms of 1996 were propelled by widespread societal hostility toward deadbeat dads, a term that was applied indiscriminately to all noncustodial fathers who were delinquent on their payments. The public viewed nonpaying fathers as men who could afford to pay child support but flagrantly chose not to pay, depriving their children of desperately needed economic support. Political leaders contributed to the heated rhetoric. Days before signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), President Clinton, who pledged to end welfare as we know it, threatened deadbeat dads that the government would be relentless in its pursuit of them for past due child support. He warned: [I] f you owe child support, you better pay it. If you deliberately refuse to pay it, you can find your face posted in the Post Office. We'll track you down with computers . . . . We'll track you down with law enforcement. We'll find you through the Internet. State agencies followed through on these threats and went so far as to post wanted ads of fathers who failed to support their children. Subsequent media coverage of deadbeat dads fueled public outrage, particularly because the popular image conveyed was that of a father who enjoyed an affluent standard of living yet shirked his child support obligation while his children lived in abject poverty.
In 1996, Congress passed sweeping reforms of the federal welfare and child support enforcement systems. The new welfare law, PRWORA, ended AFDC and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a federal block grant program. TANF abolished the entitlement to benefits under AFDC, imposed strict work requirements on recipients in exchange for government assistance, established time limits on receipt of welfare benefits, and required states to sanction those who did not engage in work or work-related activities. The reforms imposing a time limit on receipt of benefits and eliminating the entitlement status of welfare benefits heightened the importance of child support as a supplemental economic resource for TANF families.
The unmistakable message underlying PRWORA was that poor mothers must go to work to support their children. To achieve the welfare-to-work goal, the law provided short-term cash benefits, employment-related services to address the labor market barriers that poor mothers experienced, and supports to enhance the likelihood that mothers would succeed in the workplace. The practical effect of these changes in welfare law was that poor children and their families could no longer rely on a long-term cash benefit.
Today, the government safety net is a system of supports focused on helping poor custodial parents (primarily mothers) find and maintain jobs. The system includes services that help individuals find paid work (such as job placement assistance, job training, and subsidized work experiences) and supports that subsidize low-wage employment (such as child care assistance, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)). The rationale for the expanded income security measures was an effort to make work pay, so that single mothers leaving welfare for work would be better off financially than those who remained on welfare. For low-wage custodial mothers, packaging post-tax, post-transfer income with other non-cash government benefits and regular child support payments greatly enhanced their ability to provide for their children.
The child support enforcement amendments in PRWORA were as extensive and far-reaching as the welfare reforms. Indeed, when President Clinton signed PRWORA, he stated: For a lot of women and children, . . . the only reason they're on welfare today--the only reason--is that the father up and walked away when he could have made a contribution to the welfare of the children. The primary purpose of these reforms was to improve the operation of child support systems so that those systems could collect more money from noncustodial fathers to assist single mothers in the process of moving from welfare to work. The reforms also advanced the goal of welfare cost recovery: the government practice of seeking reimbursement of welfare costs through child support enforcement. Central features of the law included enhanced procedures for establishing paternity in nonmarital births, implementation of a national directory of newly hired employees that child support agencies could use to locate non-payers, and streamlined administrative procedures. Additionally, PRWORA gave states more discretion regarding how to allocate child support payments received on behalf of TANF families, no longer mandating that states pass through the first fifty dollars per month of payments to recipient families directly.
Another significant systemic change in PRWORA was the implementation of mass case processing in lieu of judicial and quasi-judicial individualized proceedings. The enforcement system has been described as follows:
If we do not know where a father is, policymakers can find him in one of many available databases. If we do not know which man is the father of a particular child, administrative agencies can order DNA tests. Formulas spit out order awards, and remote computers assess award levels. Support is deducted from individuals' paychecks before they even know it was there to begin with. And money is sent back to the recipient families, so that housing, food, and utility bills can all be paid on time.
Overall, the child support system became more automated and, particularly with respect to enforcement methods, more stringent and punitive. As some described it at the time, [t] he vision for child support enforcement that guided legislative development is that support payments should be automatic and inescapable.
This image of non-payers as deadbeats was fairly applied to the many well-to-do fathers whose children were suffering economically, but it did not take account of the twenty-six percent of noncustodial fathers who were themselves poor. When Congress enacted the welfare law, it was known that a number of child support obligors were so poor that they fell below the poverty threshold. When considering the reform proposals, policymakers and the media gave little thought to fathers with limited means to meet their child support obligations or how to help them meet their financial obligations to their children.
Poor noncustodial fathers, characterized by some researchers as either deadbroke or as turnips, have limited abilities to provide economic support to their children. One empirical study found that twenty-three percent of noncustodial fathers are indeed unable nonpayers. About thirty percent of poor fathers who do not pay child support are incarcerated and the remainder experience some or all of the following barriers to employment: limited education, limited work experience, health problems, transportation barriers, and/or housing instability. The researchers' conclusion--that it would be futile to pursue child support payments from these impoverished fathers --has been borne out. In other words, [noncustodial] fathers are rarely poor and paying child support (3 percent). Rather than providing assistance to attain job skills and employment so that these men are better able to pay support, unnecessarily harsh child support laws place the poorest fathers in an economically untenable position by setting child support orders at levels that exceed their capacity to pay and then later punishing them for shirking their responsibilities when they are inevitably delinquent.