Column: California must stop taking away child support from kids and families

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during his State of the State address on March 8.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during his State of the State address last week. Newsom is requesting legislation to allow former recipients of child support to receive all the aid to which they’re entitled.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

This seems counterintuitive in such a liberal state, but it’s a fact: California rips off child support payments intended for moms who receive government aid.

It’s largely Washington’s fault because of a federal law enacted nearly a half-century ago.

Not only California, but most states engage in this shameful heist based on federal guidelines.


They seize child support money not only from those mothers, but others who used to receive government aid and have gotten off it.

To Gov. Gavin Newsom’s credit, he’s proposing to go partway in righting this wrong. He’s asking for legislation to allow former aid recipients to receive all the child support they’re entitled to. But current recipients would continue to have their payments docked.

The governor and Legislature should do the morally correct thing and permit all child support — whether for former or current aid beneficiaries — to go where it’s supposed to: the kids. Not government vaults.

“We have this big, elaborate child support system that doesn’t give the money to the kids,” says Michael Herald, policy director for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “They forgot the word ‘child.’

“Ask the public, ‘Where do you think the money goes when the government collects child support?’ ‘It goes to kids.’ No. It doesn’t.”

Most of the public doesn’t have a clue about this, I suspect. Most, that is, except the mothers — or in some cases fathers — who are on CalWORKs, the state’s major financial assistance program. They’re well-aware of the shortchanging.


So are the dads — or sometimes the moms — who are ordered to pay child support. They resent — and often resist — spending meager money to pad government checking accounts rather than help their kids.

This sorry government practice had escaped me until recently, when I read Times reporter Mackenzie Mays’ thoroughly researched piece.

At least 175,000 low-income families in California are eligible for only a portion of child support because they also receive public assistance.

Feb. 28, 2022

To get to the bottom of this, you’ve got to wade through a lot of indecipherable gunk crafted in obscure governmentese. I’ll try to avoid that trap here.

Basically, the federal government in 1975 required that all moms or dads who applied for cash assistance also open a child support case. Even if the non-custodial parent was already making regular payments. And regardless of whether the mom didn’t want to, perhaps fearing the dad’s reprisal.

The feds wanted to make sure the child support payments kept flowing. States were assigned the job of collecting the money, often through counties.

Then the mugging: Governments split much of the collection to partially reimburse themselves for their public assistance costs.


This scheme was reaffirmed in President Clinton’s 1996 “Welfare to Work” reform.

Until January, California allowed only $50 of monthly child support to “pass through” to the families. Then the amount was raised to $100 for a family with one child and $200 for those with two or more kids. Any payments above that, the state grabs.

Sacramento keeps half for itself, sends 45% to Washington and the counties get 5%.

It’s a bit different for moms who have gotten off aid but are still owed child support. If it’s money that’s past due — payments that were skipped while the family was receiving CalWORKs checks — the state takes it all. If a payment is up to date, it all goes to the family.

But this is getting too deep in the weeds.

County offices in charge of administering CalFresh food benefits to low-income Californians are understaffed and overwhelmed, leading to delays in services.

March 9, 2022

Greg Wilson, executive director of the Child Support Directors Assn., puts it in perspective: “The state and federal governments got used to the revenue that this program generates. It’s difficult to shift policy.”

“But this is 2022,” he adds. “In 1975, we didn’t think this was chicken. Our understanding of how to support children has evolved. It’d be terrible if what we thought was good in ’75, we still thought was good.”

Newsom agrees, at least partly.

He proposes to allow all former CalWORKs families to receive the entire child support they’re entitled to, whether it’s in arrears or on time. The state Legislative Analyst Office estimates that 69,000 families would benefit.


Neither the state, the feds or counties would take a cut. Federal law allows that.

It would mean $187 million for families. And the state general fund would be $105 million short in “reimbursements.”

But that doesn’t help the families currently receiving CalWORKs benefits. They’d still be stiffed.

Monthly aid is around $800 for most families of a mother and child living in a high-cost county, according to state data. Newsom has proposed a 7% increase. But they should also get their full child support.

That would cost the state an estimated $150 million — half of it a required kickback to the feds.

“It’s great to give money to families that used to be on welfare,” Herald says. “But they’re generally doing better than families still on it — the poorest families in the state. We’re not saying don’t do what the governor proposed. Go ahead. But don’t leave these other kids out, for God’s sake.”

Colorado decided five years ago to allow aid recipients their full share of child support. To no one’s surprise, the dads felt better about paying — and increasingly did.


“Collections went up far more than expected,” says Chaer Robert, legislative director for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. “Fathers knew the money was going to their kids, not the government.”

Newsom and Democratic legislators are always pushing kids’ programs — child development, transitional kindergarten …

They should stop snatching the kids’ child support.