First and foremost, thank you for your leadership during these unprecedented times, and good wishes to you, your family, and your staff.
We are writing to call your attention to immediate action you may take to financially support noncustodial parents in your state now, and advance family-centered child support policies and practices long-term. These recommendations are an opportunity to both provide immediate, needed support to fathers and their families as well as innovate and fix what has been an antiquated policy barrier undercutting families’ economic security in your state.
Ascend at the Aspen Institute focuses on improving outcomes for the whole family – children and their parents – by applying a two-generation (2Gen) approach and a gender and equity lens. We have worked with the Ascend Network, close to 400 leading nonprofits, and members of the Aspen Institute Fatherhood Learning and Action Community, to identify opportunities in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that can support family-centered child support policies.
The CARES Act provides for direct payments of $1,200 to individuals who are experiencing financial difficulties because of this economic and public health emergency. While the CARES Act exempts these payments from federal tax offsets to pay taxes, educational loans, and other government debts, the Act does not exempt these payments from offsets to pay child support arrears. Last week, the Trump Administration provided additional guidance to state child support programs clarifying that states do not have the option to suspend federal tax offset enforcement during this emergency. Their April 22, 2020 guidance clarifies that states must submit all cases owing child support debt for federal tax offset, and do not have discretion to select cases for offset.
Across the country, as many as 2.1 million noncustodial parents in the child support program will not receive their full payments because they owe child support arrears assigned to states to pay back the TANF cash assistance received by custodial parents. This is called “state debt.” An additional estimated 2.9 million noncustodial parents will not receive their full payments because they owe child support arrears to custodial parents. Most noncustodial parents who owe child support debt have very low incomes. Typically, their debts accrued during periods of unemployment, part-time work, or incarceration, because the amounts of their support orders exceeded their ability to pay. Additionally, many of these parents are among the individuals most exposed to health risks in your communities and have lost jobs and shelter; some are not eligible for unemployment insurance because they did not have a qualifying job before the emergency.
Under the child support laws of most states, federal tax offset collections are primarily used to pay off TANF state debt before paying support to custodial parents. State debt collections are shared with the federal government according to the state’s Federal Medical Assistance Percentage. States keep from 23 to 50 percent of state debt collections as state revenues, with the remainder sent back to the federal treasury.
The child support offsets of the $1,200 direct payments applied to state debt will represent substantial new revenues to states. We want to clarify that the CARES Act does not address how states may use these new state revenues, and there are no other federal requirements attached to how the state may use these new state revenues. This means that states have significant latitude in how to use the revenues gained from offsetting the $1,200 payments. We encourage you to create a separate account for the state debt offset funds you will receive, and augment those funds, if possible, to make state payments to those noncustodial parents who did not receive the direct federal payments under the CARES Act.
We also encourage you to safeguard the ability of noncustodial parents to file timely review and adjustment requests and to activate state debt reduction programs. It is critical to maintain or expand essential on-line agency or judicial portals to allow and encourage noncustodial parents to file electronic requests to preserve their rights to a review and adjustment of their support orders when they lose income. If parents cannot file these requests as soon as their financial circumstances change, they will accrue insurmountable child support debt during the emergency. While we recognize that state child support IT systems are often not as nimble as needed, please take necessary steps to implement rapid review and adjustment procedures as soon as possible.
Finally, we strongly encourage you to review the child support laws in your state to ensure that child support payments are reaching children, and not being used as a source of government revenues.
These recommendations advance a family-centered approach to the COVID-19 emergency. They also acknowledge this window of opportunity to modernize child support policy. Well- intentioned policies originally put in place to support to children and families have over time evolved into a significant and inequitable barrier for many parents, especially fathers, to fully participate in the economy, contribute to their family security and connect with their children. Policy reform measures offer the possibility of long-term economic and positive wellbeing outcomes.
We deeply appreciate your full consideration of our recommendations. If we can be of help, please contact Tiffany Day, systems change and policy analyst, Ascend at the Aspen Institute (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Anne B. Mosle
Vice President, the Aspen Institute
Executive Director, Ascend at the Aspen Institute
Founder, President and CEO
Center for Urban Families
Co-Founder and Program Administrator
Alameda County Fathers Corps
First 5 Alameda County
President and CEO
Martha O’Bryan Center
Craig Garfield, MD, MAPP
Professor, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Departments of Pediatrics and Medical Social Sciences and Director of Research, Division of Hospital Based Medicine Co-Director, Pediatric Hospital Medicine Fellowship Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago
Jessica Pearson, Ph.D.
Center for Policy Research
New York, NY
Allan Wachendorfer, MSW
Aspen Institute Fatherhood Learning and Action Community
Los Angeles, CA
Western Center on Law & Poverty
Los Angeles, CA