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This article tells us what we should have already known - that total child support payments in the United States dropped by 2.1% in 2009 in inflation-adjusted dollars (Huffington Post, 2/4/11).  That of course reflects the fact that unemployment has shot up over the last three years from around 5% to twice that before dropping back a bit. So, no job, no money.  Well, that's not exactly right.  The article is based on a recent General Accounting Office publication on child support collection from data compiled by the Office of Child Support Enforcement.  And in that publication, there's still more information the article excludes. For example, one reason the support collections didn't fall more is that states were intercepting unemployment compensation instead of that earned by employment.
In fiscal year 2009, which was marked by high national unemployment, the amount of collections intercepted from unemployment insurance benefits nearly tripled, while collections withheld from income decreased for the first time.
Interesting too is the fact that, according to the GAO, there were about 15.8 million child support cases outstanding in 2009.  According to Figure 3, about 9.7 million of those parents were either currently or had formerly received public assistance.  In other words, the obligees tend to be poor, and where the obligees are poor, it's a safe bet the obligors aren't much better off. Under federal law, states that pay out funds as Temporary Aid to Needy Families must attempt to get reimbursement from child support obligors.  That involves a process of paternity establishment, establishing a child support order and collecting the money.  Anything paid out in TANF is reimbursed to the federal government if it's collected in child support. But, the federal government has tried an experiment.  Called "Family First," it allows states to "pass through" up to $200 a month per family of child support paid to the state even though the family also received TANF.  In other words, states could pay the child support to the family instead of reimbursing Uncle Sam. But they didn't.  Given the opportunity to put "families first" by paying them instead of keeping the money for themselves, 43 states opted to keep the money.  The next time your friendly state Attorney General brags about how much he/she is doing for the kids of the state by collecting child support, ask that worthy why your state decided that, when it came to families or money, it took the money. The feds also did an experiment in 2008.  They decided to suspend incentive payments to states for how much they collected in child support.  Before 2008, that amounted to a hefty chunk of change and the federal government decided to just cut it off.  So how did states respond?  Overall, they shrugged off the drop in revenue actually increasing their child support efforts slightly. But that masked a different reality - that only five states increased their own expenditure for enforcement while 22 states dropped theirs markedly. So who actually spends the money to collect child support?  If you said "state governments," put on the conical hat and stand facing the corner.  The federal government bore 75% of that burden in 2009 and never less than 71% in the last seven years. The HuffPo piece doesn't have much to say about this, but it does alert readers to the fact that the recession is having an impact in the child support area. As I've said before, states should make it far easier than they do to adjust child support obligations for changed circumstances such as loss of a job or a reduction in hours.  There is simply no reason to pretend that such an event affects married couples but not divorced ones.  In every family, job loss affects everyone including the kids, so child support obligations should be adjusted to fit the circumstances. Anything else leads to loss of drivers' and occupational licenses and prison, none of which helps anyone.

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