MILWAUKEE — The collection of child support from absent fathers is failing to help many of the poorest families, in part because the government uses fathers’ payments largely to recoup welfare costs rather than passing on the money to mothers and children.
Close to half the states pass along none of collected child support to families on welfare, while most others pay only $50 a month to a custodial parent, usually the mother, even though the father may be paying hundreds of dollars each month.
Critics say using child support to repay welfare costs harms children instead of helping them, contradicting the national goal of strengthening families, and is a flaw in the generally lauded national campaign to increase collections.
Karla Hart, a struggling mother of four here, held out her monthly statement from the county child-support office.
Paid by the father: $229.40.
Amount deducted to repay federal costs of welfare: $132.18.
Her share: $97.22. “That extra money was a bill I could pay,” said Ms. Hart, 56, who has lupus and other serious ailments but against her doctor’s advice has started working at a day care center, in a failing effort to achieve solvency.
Reflecting a growing, bipartisan sense that diverting child support money to government coffers is counterproductive, Congress, in the Deficit Reduction Act passed in early 2006, took a modest step toward change. Beginning in 2009, states will be permitted to pass along up to $100 for one child and $200 for two or more children, with the state and federal governments giving up a share of welfare repayments they have received in the past.
The Bush administration has set a goal of increasing the share of collections distributed to families and reducing the amount retained by the government. But the drive to reduce the budget deficit has gotten in the way. As part of last-minute budget crunching, the Republican-controlled Congress in that same act reduced by 20 percent the child-support enforcement money it gives to the states, starting this fall. Many states say the effort to force them to pay more of the enforcement costs will impede collections and prevent them from passing more money on to needy families.
“There was a real groundswell toward the idea of giving more of the money, or even all of it, to the families,” said Vicki Turetsky, an expert on child support at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington. But that momentum has been stopped short, she said, by the financing change.
Ms. Hart was luckier than most mothers in her position because for more than eight years, under a federally approved experiment, Wisconsin gave all money collected from noncustodial parents to the families. When the experiment ended last year, she lost most of the check.
“My daughter told me this morning that she needed $9 for something at school, and I was like, ‘But I have to pay the rent,’” Ms. Hart said. “I gave it to her, and now I have to find that money someplace else.”
Barry A. Miller, the chief of the North Carolina child support office, said North Carolina, like about half of all states, passed no support money on to families. “We were seriously considering a change, but it’s doubtful we could do that now,” said Mr. Miller, who is also the president of the National Council of Child Support Directors. In North Carolina and elsewhere, lost federal aid may instead force cuts in personnel and enforcement.
On Nov. 15, 24 governors from both parties sent a letter to Congress asking it to repeal the cuts, arguing that they would hurt one of the government’s most cost-effective programs, which raises more than $4 in child support for every $1 spent on enforcement.
The intensified national effort over the last decade to establish paternity for babies born out of wedlock and to collect more support money, mainly from fathers, is often described as a great success. And indeed, collections have increased significantly, to some $24 billion in 2006 from $12 billion in 1996, helping many families avoid penury.
But for the poorest men and women, the story is mixed. Young fathers with little education or job prospects find themselves in arrears and facing jail time or the loss of their driver’s licenses as a result, making it all the harder to start earning and paying, said David J. Pate Jr., an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.