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The coronavirus pandemic is a public health and economic crisis unlike any we have experienced in modern U.S. history. While millions of Americans will feel the economic impact of COVID-19, undoubtedly, low-income and marginalized communities of color will be hit hardest. The biggest impact will be felt by those living paycheck to paycheck or struggling to find steady employment due to varied barriers, such as a criminal record, disability, or mental health history. Therefore, the economic consequences of this pandemic will only make the day-to-day emergencies confronted by these individuals even more pronounced and urgent—requiring an unprecedented response from our state and local governments, as well as others who directly support and serve these individuals and families. Many state governments have already started suspending the collection of fines and releasing incarcerated individuals who are near the end of their sentences, and municipalities are suspending utility disconnections and eviction proceedings.
On the national level, Congress has just passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to sustain the economy as our country battles the spread of COVID-19. Among the provisions of this legislation is the release of $1,200 stimulus payments to Americans with annual incomes up to $75,000. Shortly after the act was passed, news outlets revealed that noncustodial parents who are behind in their child support may not receive this assistance. We urge federal policymakers to reconsider this decision and instead view noncustodial parents as people instead of paychecks. It is paramount that at this moment we consider all policies that are likely to have far-reaching financial consequences for those most economically vulnerable, including the enforcement of child support orders. Thus, we urge state and local governments to suspend the collection of child support payments during this time of extreme economic precariousness.
Child support enforcement is a vital system for many working- and middle-class parents for facilitating economic contributions from noncustodial parents to custodial parents and their children. However, as the most economically vulnerable among us face growing financial precariousness, the collection of child support will make low-income child support payers increasingly at risk for a host of actions that will simultaneously undermine their ability to navigate this global crisis and support their children after it ends. According to the Office of Child Support Enforcement, nearly 6 million noncustodial parents are behind on their child support payments, owing more than $114 billion in past-due support. One study found that 70 percent of the national child support debt was owed by noncustodial parents who earned less than $10,000 per year. Many of these parents work in low-wage jobs that fail to pay a livable wage or offer any kind of paid time off or sick leave. Others struggle to find employment or rely on temporary jobs to meet their most basic needs. Importantly, these noncustodial parents—mostly fathers—are more likely to be paying child support as reimbursement for welfare benefits paid to the custodial parent. Welfare reform passed in 1996 allowed states to order child support to repay their expenditures of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and other means-tested benefits.* This means that low-income custodial parents and children see very little of the child support paid by the noncustodial parent. Almost half of child support debt belongs to low-income parents who are paying back the state for the cost of TANF benefits. In a time of great economic precariousness most acutely affecting the economically vulnerable, repaying the state for welfare benefits does not seem like a high priority. Therefore, we urge state enforcement offices to discharge all outstanding child support debt owed directly to the state.
A temporary suspension of child support orders will also prevent collection actions that would not have otherwise occurred without the effects of this global pandemic. Because child support enforcement is a highly automated system, missed payments automatically trigger administrative actions like the accrual of fees and interest, driver’s license suspension, passport denial, and bank account seizure. In some instances, noncustodial parents with child support debt face incarceration through contempt of court filings, despite research and federal guidelines that have demonstrated that this enforcement mechanism does not result in positive outcomes for families. Additionally, missed or partial payments may place more low-income noncustodial parents, who would not have otherwise become delinquent, behind and in court for noncompliance. To redress the punitive consequences facing many low-income noncustodial parents for nonpayment of support during this global crisis, we urge an indefinite end to all collection of child support resulting from contempt orders, including but not limited to order modification fees, lump sum (purge) payments, wage garnishment, and offset tax refunds (including any direct payments as part of the COVID-19 disaster relief package); a suspension of the processing of new contempt orders and an end to all active contempt filings; an immediate cease in issuing or enforcing civil arrest warrants for unpaid support or for failure to appear for contempt hearings; an end to driver’s license suspensions for child support arrears or failing to appear in court and reinstatement of driver’s licenses suspended for unpaid child support or non-safety reasons; an end to the reporting of unpaid child support to credit reporting agencies; and the release of any individuals currently incarcerated due to unpaid child support.
Understandably, some may consider suspending child support orders an additional burden to disadvantaged custodial parents and children. However, custodial parents who face financial instability are eligible for other established social support programs, such as TANF and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, that are otherwise often unavailable to noncustodial parents. As custodial parents remain able to access these safety nets during this economic downturn, we urge the suspension of the processing and enforcement of child support orders due to the receipt of TANF and other means-tested assistance, indefinitely. The federal and state governments should be supporting all custodial parent families with no strings attached during this period.
As a country in crisis, we must consider how existing policies may exacerbate existing conditions for the poor. While lawmakers take steps to lessen the economic and social impact of COVID-19, alleviating the financial and psychological stress of child support obligations increases parents’ ability to emotionally support their children during this time when it is the most needed. In light of this ongoing national emergency, we implore states across the U.S. to seriously consider these recommendations, which we believe would be in the best interest of those individuals and families who are most economically vulnerable, now more than ever.
Correction, April 1, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as Temporary Aid to Needy Families.