Targeting Poor Children for Parents' Debts Is Bad Policy

Dec 08, 2011

By Elizabeth Kenefick

Record budget gaps and deficit reduction debates have continuously threatened the existence of vital domestic programs on both the state and national level despite increased need and program success. The economic situation also has boosted states' efforts to collect overpayments and fines. In California these debt collectors are even going after poor children.

Recently, the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the Public Interest Law Project filed a law suit against the California Department of Social Services for forcing children to repay old welfare debts of their parents or guardians. State officials claim regulations have allowed counties to go after minors to recoup debt for years, but only after efforts to recover funds from adults have been exhausted.

One recent newspaper story discussed the case of 14-year-old Irene Lara.  The current $344 in monthly cash assistance payments her great-grandfather collects on her behalf will be reduced by 10 percent until she pays back $2,846 the state claims she owes. The overpayments occurred in another case more than ten years ago, around the time of Irene's birth.  That case file has since been lost - making it impossible to know the cause of the overpayment - but Fresno County is holding Irene responsible.

Ohio has also been in the news recently for collecting welfare debts that were over a decade old.  Earlier this week Michael Colbert, the head of its Department of Jobs and Family Services, announced that the state would only go after over payments that were a result of fraud, not state mistakes. He said, "We think it (the decision to collect old overpayments indefinitely) impacts a very vulnerable population, and my position is this population doesn't need this as public policy."

California should take a page from Ohio's book and revoke its policy to go after children whose families have received or are receiving TANF. The policy is especially egregious because it holds children responsible for state accounting errors and mistakes made by their parents years ago. Further, it only serves to make poor children even more vulnerable.  Research shows that poor children in the United States are less likely than their counterparts in other developed countries to move out of poverty. Given that they are already disadvantaged, saddling them with parental debt is counterproductive in the extreme.

Currently California leads the nation with more than two million children living in poverty in 2010, yet it was one of six states to cut its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefit levels for 2011. Its vulnerable children should not be punished any more than they already have during this dire economic climate. Doing so will rob them of the chance to become self-sufficient and escape poverty.

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