Why California takes child support from low income families
Even in a time of budget surplus, California takes money from child support meant for low-income families and keeps it in state coffers.
The state generally requires families enrolled in CalWORKs, the state’s public assistance program, to open a child support case so that the government can later “recover” the cost from the noncustodial parent — usually the father — as a sort of reimbursement to itself for that cash aid.
Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom is trying to chip away at the policy, shaped by a 1975 federal law that created a child support enforcement program with a focus on “welfare cost recovery.” But the governor’s plans stop short of giving families on public assistance full access to their child support payments without state intervention.
Public assistance and child support are all but inextricable. The programs are so intertwined that when a child’s primary caretaker, who is typically the mother, seeks to enroll in CalWORKs, she’s often forced to open a child support case in order to ensure the government is reimbursed — even if she doesn’t want to.
One mother in San Diego County, who asked not to be named for safety reasons, said she was resistant to pursue child support for her 4-year-old because she has a restraining order against his father, but it was the only way she could receive cash aid and services from CalWORKs.
“If you don’t have [a child support case] open, they automatically pursue it for you. It’s non-negotiable, and the logic is: We’ll help you, but somebody’s got to pay us back,” she said. “So many people that I know don’t pursue getting help because of that requirement.”
States can give more money to low-income families than the federal government generally allows — as long as they’re willing to pay for it.
In order to give those families full child support payments, the state would have to find a way to make up for the revenue that child support collections bring in, plus send the federal government a check for its portion, totaling at least $150 million, according to the California Department of Child Support Services.
The state’s budget for the 2022-23 year is $286.4 billion.
At least 175,000 low-income families in California are eligible for only a portion of child support because they also receive public assistance. The rest goes to the state, counties and the federal government.
Up to 620,000 additional families could receive access to their full child support amount under a proposal in Newsom’s budget unveiled last month. The proposal would direct child support to parents who previously received public assistance — many of whom no longer qualify though they maintain low incomes.
When a parent leaves the CalWORKs program, the state can no longer keep some of their child support payments. But if the noncustodial parent failed to keep up with the required payments, the state continues to take a portion of the money to cover the cost of the earlier assistance.
Parents who currently or previously received government assistance constitute more than 75% of the child support caseload in California, according to the state Department of Finance.
“When the parent who is no longer living with the children makes a payment, which we all want them to do, the children don’t get the money,” said Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy for the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The public doesn’t understand this. People think that the reason we have a harsh child support system is so we can get money to kids, but actually it’s to get money to the government.”
A custodial parent who has never received CalWORKs aid gets to keep the full amount of child support.
Dana Maciel, a student at the West Hills Community College District in Coalinga who has four children ages 1 to 12, called the policy “emotionally draining.”
Maciel, a CalWORKs recipient, said that she feels punished for being poor. The system pushes parents to work their way out of needing public assistance only to continue to take from them when they no longer need it, she said.
“You worked so hard for nothing. The state still takes it away. It’s pointless,” she said. “It comes to a point where you end up being back in the system. They say they want to help you but it doesn’t really feel like that.”
In 2020, Newsom moved to increase the amount that families enrolled in CalWORKs receive in child support from $50 to $100 for one child and $200 for two or more children — the maximum amount the federal government is willing to pass through to families without requiring the state to backfill the financial loss.
Other states, including Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania, offer that same maximum amount to families.
In the San Diego County mother’s case, her child’s father pays about $350 a month in child support, based on his income, but she is only eligible to receive up to $100. Before Newsom’s policy kicked in last month, she received just $50 per month.
Colorado gives 100% of child support to families on assistance, and to make up for it, dedicates a portion of its state budget each year to cover the federal requirement. The Colorado Department of Human Services reported that in the first two years of implementation, families received $11.7 million more than they had before and child support payments increased as paying parents were more inclined to pay when they knew the money went directly to families and not the government.
Half of all states don’t pass on any child support to families on assistance, and some states provide less than California, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Newsom’s budget proposes that the California Department of Child Support Services waive its share of “recoupment” for families that formerly received CalWORKs assistance, which would result in a revenue loss of $52.3 million for the state in the coming fiscal year and more than $104 million in ongoing funds by redirecting the money to the intended families instead of keeping it in state coffers.
“Providing these funds directly to families may help low-income families reduce the burden of high-cost debt and stabilize their financial position,” Newsom wrote in his budget.
But families currently enrolled in CalWORKs would still have a portion of their child support payments intercepted by the state.
The Newsom administration has pointed to federal rules as a hindrance to doing more, but parent and anti-poverty advocates are pushing the state, which is now flush with cash, to follow Colorado’s lead.
Newsom’s focus on families formerly on assistance, instead of those currently on assistance, allows the state to avoid having to pay the federal government a multimillion-dollar bill each year.
However, directing more money to those currently on CalWORKs makes more sense, according to a report released by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office this month.
The average former CalWORKs recipient who would benefit from Newsom’s proposal is a low-income 52-year-old parent with adult children, according to the report. An estimated 75% of former CalWORKs cases no longer have an active child support order, probably because the child has reached adulthood, according to the report.
Despite the federal rules, the state has discretion over how much child support it gives to families, and Newsom’s proposal “does not identify a clear reason” to have different policies for different families, the report states. Giving more money to both current and former CalWORKs families is “not mutually exclusive,” according to the report.
At a legislative hearing about Newsom’s proposal on Wednesday, David Kilgore, director of the California Department of Child Support Services, said the state has had extensive conversations with Colorado officials about their more expansive policy.
Kilgore said that “there’s a lot of merits to the idea” and that “we would like to be there at some point in time,” but reiterated the state would “have to make the federal government whole” by doing so.
Greg Wilson, executive director of the California Child Support Directors Assn., called Newsom’s proposals “really strong family-centered policy,” but said the tendency to blame the federal government for not doing more is “a bit of mythology.”
A bill that would have absolved states of having to pay the federal government and given low-income parents 100% of child support payments failed in Congress in 2020.
“The state could decide to pass it all through to families, it just comes with a price tag,” Wilson said. “That’s the double-edged sword for California. If Congress ever changed that to make it a better option for states, I believe that California would jump on the chance, absolutely.”