The farm bill can help children by targeting deadbeat parents

The farm bill can help children by targeting deadbeat parents
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In February, law enforcement officials finally caught Joseph Stroup, America’s most-wanted deadbeat dad. Stroup owes nearly $560,000 in unpaid child support and has been on the run for the last 20 years. Stroup’s capture moves Christopher Carroll, a former business executive who owes more than $250,000 in unpaid support, to the top of the most-wanted list. And while not all delinquent child support cases are this high profile, they do share one thing in common: they’re robbing children of the support they need and deserve.

Without that support in place, millions of single-parent families are forced into lives of poverty, dependency, and despair. Nearly half of families who receive no child support or have no child support awards are dependent on Medicaid, food stamps, public housing, or other welfare benefits. They are nearly 60 percent more likely to receive food stamps as families who receive the full amount of owed child support. When child support goes unpaid, most of these families will remain trapped in dependency for years to come: fewer than one in ten will leave the program within a year, while three in five will languish in dependency for more than eight years.

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The problem isn’t a small one. More than six million single-parent families receive food stamps today — more than twice as many as in 2000. But just one in four of these families will receive any child support at all. Even fewer receive all that is owed to them.

 

It doesn’t have to be this way. The recently released farm bill from the House Committee on Agriculture takes a significant step forward in helping solve this crisis. The proposed legislation paves the way to boost incomes, reduce child poverty, and help move more families out of dependency and into self-sufficiency.

Under the proposal, parents on food stamps will need to cooperate with state efforts to establish awards and collect unpaid support. The law would provide good cause exemptions when such cooperation isn’t in the best interest of the child — such as when there is a risk of domestic violence — and children enrolled in the program will never be sanctioned for their parents’ decisions. But parents who refuse to meet their obligations or otherwise interfere with states’ attempts to collect child support would be removed until they cooperate.

This commonsense idea has already been tested at the state level, both in food stamps and in other welfare programs. States have used these measures for decades in cash welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. More recent experiences expanding this policy to food stamps have also seen remarkable results.

When Kansas expanded its successful enforcement policies to the food stamp program in 2015, the Department for Children and Families set in place a system to track child support collections for families affected by the reform. Within just six months, child support collections increased by nearly 40 percent among those impacted. Since the change, poor families in Kansas have gained an estimated $1.8 million more in child support each year. More support has translated into less need for government assistance, allowing many to move out of poverty and end their dependence on welfare programs entirely.

When paid in full, child support increases incomes for single-parent families on food stamps by nearly $5,700 on average — enough to effectively double the income of those families in poverty. It lifts more than a million children out of poverty each year and brings millions more one step closer to escaping the dependency trap.

The farm bill builds on these state-level successes to take this commonsense reform nationwide. While more work will be needed to ensure that poor families get the support they need, the proposed child support cooperation requirements are an important first step to improving lives, reducing dependency, and helping needy and impoverished children.

Jonathan Ingram (@IngramLaw) is vice president of research at the Foundation for Government Accountability (@TheFGA), a non-profit research organization dedicated to replacing failed health and welfare programs nationwide.