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Farm Bill’s Costly Child Support Requirement Would Take Food Assistance from Needy Families

The House Agriculture Committee farm bill, which the House is expected to vote on this week, would require low-income parents living apart to participate in the child support enforcement program or lose SNAP benefits. In a commentary today for Governing, former federal Commissioner of Child Support Enforcement Vicki Turetsky writes, “the proposed mandate would waste billions, result in low [child support] collection rates, pose safety risks, and leave some children worse off.” States already can mandate child support cooperation in SNAP, but only six do because of the cost and complexity. A national requirement would entail serious risks for low-income families and states:

  • Needy families would likely lose food assistance. A parent deemed to be not complying with the mandate would see her SNAP benefits cut, shrinking the entire family’s limited food budget. In states that now use this option, families have lost vital assistance even when they’ve had good reason not to pursue child support. For example, some survivors of domestic violence lost SNAP benefits because they didn’t understand that they could seek an exemption from the requirement; others were too afraid of retribution from their abuser to even apply for SNAP. In other cases, state administrative failures led to sanctions despite the applicant’s willingness to cooperate.
  • The requirement won’t likely boost child support payments substantially. Most low-income families are already engaged with child support enforcement to pursue payments they are due, Census data show. And many that aren’t may already have private, court-ordered agreements as a result of a divorce or informal arrangements to provide meals or child care. Furthermore, poor non-custodial parents won’t likely have the means to provide much financial support, which is why many custodial parents say they don’t pursue child support.
  • The mandate would cost billions and create significant administrative burden. The mandate would cost about $11 billion over ten years, the Congressional Budget Office projects, with states paying $3.7 billion to leverage a federal match of about $7.2 billion. States that can’t invest additional funds could see program efficiency suffer. The mandate would require costly computer system changes and dramatically increase state administrative burdens, while jeopardizing food assistance for families in need, according to the American Public Human Services Association, which represents state administrators across the political spectrum. The National Child Support Enforcement Association also opposes a national mandate, given the lack of evidence about the policy’s costs and effectiveness in states that have implemented it.

Whenever possible, both parents should provide financial and emotional support to their children. But we’ve seen the damaging, unintended consequences of a costly child support mandate in states that have imposed it, both in SNAP and other programs. Improving access to child support services is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of food assistance for vulnerable families and children.

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