American families need support. This is why a child allowance—a per-child payment to families from the government—has become popular on both sides of the U.S. political aisle. Congressional Democrats recently proposed sending monthly checks to households with children, starting a debate over the government’s responsibility to families and the potential negative implications of a child allowance on employment and childbearing outside of marriage.
A crucial component missing from the debates over the desirability of a child allowance in the U.S. is discussion of child support, that is, money paid by noncustodial parents to help support their children. Formerly married parents often agree to child support arrangements as part of divorce proceedings. But getting child support from unmarried parents can be more complicated. This is when the federal Child Support Enforcement program can help. It works by securing child support from noncustodial parents, and research shows that payment of child support can strengthen the parental bond between noncustodial parents and children. A child allowance would inadvertently weaken the Child Support Enforcement program, and reduced child support would threaten the relationship between noncustodial parents and their children.
The Child Support Enforcement program has been one of the most successful bipartisan components of the modern American welfare system. When President Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, child support provisions constituted a quarter of that landmark legislation. Congress strengthened the ability of states to help children obtain support from noncustodial parents through a variety of mechanisms, including wide latitude to locate noncustodial parents and garnish their wages for child support. The result was a tremendous help to low-income children. In 2019, the child support program served 14.3 million children and alone lifted almost 400,000 children out of poverty. In 2017, the average child support payment obtained by parents receiving government benefits was $2,780—notably similar to the extra amount they would receive today from a child allowance.
All of this is at risk with a child allowance. While Child Support Enforcement is a standalone program authorized by Congress, many single parents engage it through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, the country’s cash welfare program. TANF has a child support “cooperation requirement,” meaning that single parents applying for it are required to cooperate with the child support enforcement agency to locate the noncustodial parent and establish a child support order. This formalizes the financial obligations between unmarried parents, often to the benefit of single mothers who otherwise have no way to get support from the noncustodial father. It also sends a strong message that both parents bear financial responsibility for their children.
A child allowance would replace the need for cash assistance through TANF with an unconditional cash payment to all children, unraveling the main connection single parents have to child support enforcement. Although single parents could still voluntarily engage the Child Support Enforcement program under a child allowance policy, the TANF cooperation requirement leads to much higher participation among single parents. Without TANF, fewer children would receive child support from their noncustodial parent.
This is bad for kids. We need more policies to ensure that children receive financial support from both parents—not fewer. In the past, this position has received strong bipartisan support. Republicans have always advocated for policies that prioritize personal responsibility over government intervention. And Democrats have historically pushed for more support for children from the noncustodial parent. In his own autobiography, President Bill Clinton wrote that he pushed congressional Republicans to toughen child support provisions as part of welfare reform.
This emphasis has paid huge dividends for low-income children over the past three decades. Adjusted for inflation, total child support collections have risen from $17 billion in 1994 to $32.3 billion in 2018, with 96 percent going directly to families (and 4 percent going to the government). The consequences of less child support for children will extend far beyond money. Research shows that formal child support is more consistent than informal support for children. Noncustodial fathers see their children more, and children do better academically and behaviorally, when fathers pay child support. Child support contributes to the social and emotional development of children, and studies have identified a direct link between stronger enforcement regimes and more intact families.
It is unfortunate that not all American children benefit from having two parents at home. But government can help mitigate the effects of this reality by helping to ensure that both parents fulfill their financial obligation to support their children. As Congress continues to debate how a child allowance can help families in the U.S., they should also acknowledge the potential downsides for single-parent families, including less child support and less interaction between children and their noncustodial parent.
Angela Rachidi is the Rowe Scholar in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute.