When welfare reform was enacted in 1996, creating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, a less-noticed provision was the greatly increased focus on collecting child support for custodial parents (almost always mothers) and their children.
Prior to TANF, over 50 percent of child support collections went to reimburse states for welfare payments they made to single female heads of households who were still on welfare under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) Program.
But TANF expected able bodied single moms to work and required that they cooperate in identifying the father of their children, establishing paternity and seeking a court order for child support.
Gradually, the focus shifted to a “families first” philosophy, which dictated that child support payments collected from non-custodial fathers would go to working mothers rather than to reimburse state welfare agencies. The child support collected became, like the earned income tax credit, another significant wage supplement helping people leave welfare.
And the percentages of who got child support collections changed dramatically to over 90 percent going directly to working moms and their children. As described by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child Support Enforcement:
We are proud to hold up the child support program as a government success story. Congress began the child support program in 1975 to reimburse benefits paid by the government’s welfare programs. Congress changed the program in 1996 as part of welfare reform laws to expand the role of technology and ensure children receive more of the support paid by their parents. In 1998, Congress began funding the child support program based on its performance. In fiscal year 2010, the program collected $27 billion, of which 94% was distributed to families.
According to state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, from July 2011 to June 2012, New York collected $1.85 billion in child support payments, with 95 percent going directly to working custodial parents (almost all mothers of children with an absent father) who had either previously been on welfare or never on welfare.
Second only to the Earned Income Tax Credit, these dollars now represent the largest wage supplement to low income working households in New York, a true success story in the effort to reduce the TANF rolls and make work pay.