During COVID-19, Child Support Should Go to Children, Not States

By Darrel Thompson

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the third COVID-19 relief package, provides most adults a rebate check of $1,200 to help financially cope during the pandemic. The new law directs the Internal Revenue Service to ignore nearly all unpaid debts, like back taxes and student loan payments. But there is one exception. For an estimated 3.3 million people who owe child support, the check will be withheld, in part or in whole. However, much of the money withheld for child support will be kept by states rather than given to children and their families. 

The child support system was designed to ensure that children received assistance in formal payments given from noncustodial parents to custodial parents. The system also forces noncustodial parents to reimburse the government for any public benefits, like cash assistance, their families receive. In more than half the states, when child support is paid to a family that receives public benefits, the state and federal governments keep part or all of the child support to offset the cost of that assistance—the aid is essentially a loan. This policy disproportionately harms low-income communities of color, particularly Black communities—the same community that has been hardest hit by the coronavirus due to high poverty rates, crippled access to healthcare, and abundant representation in high-contact essential jobs and jobs that pay low wages.

Today, noncustodial parents obligated to pay child support are disproportionately Black men with low incomes. Racist over policing of Black communities and a biased justice system have led to disproportionate incarceration of Black men. This, in turn, makes it harder for them to gain and maintain employment to pay their support orders. Even more, 70 percent of people responsible for child support either have no reported income or earned $10,000 a year or less. Yet, noncustodial parents overdue on child support owe an average of more than $21,000. Such debt is largely the result of unrealistically high court-ordered payment levels. When noncustodial parents are unemployed or unable to show proof of income, the amount of their child support is based on “imputed” income. This is income calculated to purportedly reflect their full potential earnings, while their actual earnings may be far from it. Given this discrepancy, using imputed income to set the level of child support is counterproductive and makes it more likely that child support goes unpaid. Furthermore, the amount a parent owes in child support doesn't automatically adjust to reflect their ability to pay. So, if a parent loses work or hours, they may quickly wind up in debt. This is especially relevant given the unprecedented, high rate of unemployment caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

During a pandemic unlike any in recent memory, those experiencing economic instability face growing financial straits. Taking the stimulus check, in part or in whole, from noncustodial parents will make it more difficult for them to navigate this global crisis and support their children. It also means parents will have less money to invest in local economies and toward places like grocery stores. In light of the harsh impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color, particularly Black communities, CLASP calls on states to prioritize payments to families ahead of payments to states (as California has done), forgive parents’ child support debt, and adjust child support orders quickly to reflect current economic conditions. Doing so at this time of distress and uncertainty is both sensible and the right thing to do for noncustodial parents and their families.