The Child Support program was born in an era when the traditional family structure was – or, at least, was thought to be – a Mom who stayed at home and a Dad who worked to support the family. When parents separated, the goal was to get money from Dad so Mom could continue to care for the children.
Of course, today’s families are much more dynamic and often defy traditional definitions. Consider, for example, the Pew Research finding that 54 percent of kids in this country don't live in a home with two heterosexual parents in their first marriage. Many Americans are delaying marriage or foregoing it all together, and one-third of U.S. children are living with a single parent.
At the same time, Child Support provides critical financial resources to children living in poverty. In fact, when you think about Child Support as an anti-poverty program, it’s soon clear that when collected, child support payments provide more support per month than SNAP/Food Stamps, WIC or TANF.
So, with this new family dynamic and recognizing the important part Child Support plays in helping families attain self-sufficiency, why can’t we think about the Child Support program as a means to “build up” families? Why should it be a foregone conclusion that when parents are apart, one needs to be coerced into supporting the kids? It’s time to acknowledge that while the Child Support program is quite efficient at obtaining support from parents who work and have an ability to pay, for other parents, the program has inherited certain biases.
In trying to ensure fairness and equity for all stakeholders, some policies and procedures have led to unintended negative consequences for families. In the efficient process of quickly obtaining support for a family, if we don’t consider the holistic circumstances of the entire family, we may jeopardize a family’s chance at reunification. In other cases, the “enforcement” function applies rules that can be counterproductive to the ultimate goal: taking care of kids. As just one example, how does throwing a parent in jail for non-compliance possibly help that parent earn money to pay child support going forward?
While there are no easy solutions to many challenges related to children and families, there is an opportunity to pause and think about Child Support in dramatically different ways. I believe it’s time to step away from the entrenched status quo and start placing children and families at the center of any discussion about Child Support.
Doing so will surface some bold and important questions about what could be possible for the future. In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at these three questions:
- How would it look if we empowered both the custodial and non-custodial parents to decide how to support their children?
- Is it time for state government to get out of the cost recovery business?
- What if states started using technology to take a more nuanced approach to establishing and enforcing support orders?
By asking bold questions – and embracing new approaches that truly put children and families at the center – we can transform how we deliver outcomes for and with them.
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