October 8, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
When he was growing up, Ronnell Hampton’s father wrote a check every month for $600 for child support. But because Hampton and his mother lived in California, they only ever saw $50 of that per month. Why? Because Hampton’s mother had received welfare payments and, under California law all child support except the first $50 per month went to the state to reimburse it for those payments.
Now there are two laws awaiting the governor’s signature that would ever so slightly improve child support policy in the Golden State (CalMatters, 9/30/19). The first would direct the first $100 – instead of the first $50 - of each child support payment to the child’s family and still reserve the rest to the state. In other words, the California Legislature still prefers revenue for the state’s general fund over money for kids.
The original bill would have sent all support payments to the children for whom they were intended, but lawmakers eyed the money brought into state coffers from non-custodial parents and capped the amount at just $100.
An earlier version of [Senator Nancy] Skinner’s bill would have gone even further, directing 100% of child support payments to the family. That provision was ultimately removed amid concerns it would be too costly for the state…
California receives about $370 million each year from non-custodial parents who intend it for their kids and it seems lawmakers aren’t about to let the little tykes have it.
To add a bit of perspective, on average nationwide, families of three who received benefits under the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program, received about $486 per month (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 8/21/19). Of course that would have been higher in California, since the Golden State also has among the highest costs of living in the country. Whatever the exact figure received by Hampton’s family in TANF benefits, the taking of all child support except $50 per month effectively capped earnings at the amount of those benefits plus $50. That was true regardless of the amount his father paid. The official poverty level for that family of three is a little under $1,800 per month. In California, of course, it’s higher.
“Once it becomes a debt owed to the government, that money never gets sent to the child,” says Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which co-sponsored the bills. “It’s kind of the original sin of the child support system we have in place today, which is, how do we call it a child support system where none of that money goes back to the child?”
Indeed. When non-custodial parents know their kids will get their support instead of the government, they’re significantly more likely to pay.
A recent study from the Urban Institute, for example, tracked 32 parents participating in a San Francisco pilot project that paid off their government-owed child support debt. Researchers determined that the debt relief led to more consistent child support payments, with an 18-28 percent increase in payments among participants in the pilot project. Parents whose debt was paid off also reported reduced levels of stress and anxiety and had better credit scores, housing opportunities and employment outcomes, the researchers found, as well as improved relationships with their children and even their co-parents, after the debt was eliminated.
The second law to reach Governor Gavin Newsome’s desk for his signature eliminates interest on child support arrears. That rate now stands at an astonishing 10% per annum. Over the years, many states have either eliminated interest on child support debt or drastically reduced it. The realities of child support debt make any interest at all on that debt a pipe dream of state officials. The overwhelming majority of child support debtors are the poorest of the poor. They’re so poor that they can’t afford even the minimal amounts set for them to pay. Who in his/her right mind believes people that poor, who can’t afford to pay the amounts ordered can, in some way, pay that plus 10%? It’s in states like California that it’s not unusual to find child support debtors paying the full amount required by the court’s order but falling further and further behind every month.
It’s an untenable situation and one that’s above all unfair to and unhealthy for kids. The two new California laws will, if signed by the governor, make an ever-so-slight dent in a problem that’s gone on far too long in the face of too much evidence that the system is dysfunctional in too many ways to count.