Stop taking child and family support out of California

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It seems counterintuitive in such a liberal state, but it’s a fact: California is ripping off child support for mothers who receive government assistance.

Much of it is Washington’s fault because of a federal law enacted nearly half a century ago.

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

They seize child support money not only from these mothers, but also from others who were on government assistance and got rid of it.

To Governor Gavin Newsom’s credit, he offers to go some way in righting that wrong. He calls for legislation to allow former aid recipients to receive all the maintenance to which they are entitled. But current recipients would continue to have their payments blocked.

The Governor and Legislature should do the morally right thing and allow all child support – whether for former or current aid recipients – to go where it’s supposed to go: the children. Not government vaults.

“We have this huge, elaborate child support system that doesn’t give money to children,” says Michael Herald, policy director at 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’s okay with the kids.” No. This is not the case.

Most of the public has no idea, I guess. Most, that is, with the exception of mothers — or in some cases fathers — who are on CalWORKs, the state’s main financial aid program. They are well aware of shortchanging.

The same goes for dads – or sometimes moms – who are ordered to pay child support. They don’t like – and often resist – spending their meager money filling government checking accounts rather than helping their children.

This sad government practice had escaped me until recently, when I read the well-researched article by Times journalist Mackenzie Mays.

Basically, the federal government in 1975 required that all mothers or fathers seeking cash assistance also open a child support case. Even if the noncustodial parent was already making regular payments. And it doesn’t matter if the mom didn’t want to, perhaps fearing reprisals from the dad.

The federal government wanted to ensure that child support would continue to flow. States were tasked with collecting the money, often through counties.

Then the aggression: the governments shared a large part of the collection to partially reimburse their public assistance expenses.

This regime was reaffirmed in President Clinton’s Welfare to Work reform in 1996.

Until January, California only allowed $50 in monthly child support to “pass through” to families. Then the amount was increased to $100 for a family with one child and $200 for those with two or more children. Any payment above that is taken by the state.

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

It’s a little different for mothers who have left welfare but still owe child support. If it’s overdue money — payments that were skipped while the family got CalWORKs checks — the state takes it all. If a payment is up to date, everything goes to the family.

Newsom is proposing to allow all former CalWORKs families to receive all child support to which they are entitled, whether late or on time. The State’s Office of Legislative Analysts estimates that 69,000 families would benefit.

Neither the state, nor the federal government, nor the counties would take a share. Federal law allows it.

That would mean $187 million for families. And the state’s general fund would miss $105 million in “reimbursements.”

But that doesn’t help families currently receiving CalWORKs benefits. They would still be stiff.

Monthly assistance is about $800 for most one-mother-and-one-child families living in a high-cost county, according to state data. Newsom offered a 7% raise. But they should also get their full child support.

It would cost the state about $150 million, half of that in mandatory federal kickbacks.

“It’s great to give money to families who were on welfare,” says Herald. “But they are generally doing better than the families that are still there – the poorest families in the state. We’re not saying don’t do what the governor has suggested. Go ahead. But don’t leave those other kids out, for God’s sake.

Colorado decided five years ago to give aid recipients their full share of child support. To no one’s surprise, fathers felt better about paying – and were doing it more and more.

“Collections have grown much more than expected,” says Chaer Robert, legislative director of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. “The fathers knew the money was going to their children, not the government.”

Newsom and Democratic lawmakers are still pushing children’s programs — child development, transitional kindergarten…

They should stop stealing child support.

George Skelton is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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