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.