Child Support for Welfare Families: Family Policy Trapped in Its Own Rhetoric


One component of the current consensus on welfare reform is that fathers should be made to support their children. Conservatives, liberals, and many feminists claim that the enforcement of child support obligations will reduce welfare costs, will alleviate poverty in mother-only households, and will foster family relations by making fathers responsible for their children. This agreement is reflected in the Family Support Act of 1988 which links provisions intended to strengthen child support enforcement with work and training requirements for welfare mothers.

The consensus on child support enforcement, like the consensus on the work requirements, starts with the assumption that children are the private responsibility of their parents. Support of children is supposed to come from parents, not from the government. Fathers will therefore be made to support their children through child support payments, and mothers will be required to support their children through work. The consensus on child support is almost universal. In contrast to the work and training provisions in the Family Support Act, which generated significant controversy, the child support provisions received virtually no public attention. There is, however, strong reason to doubt that the Family Support Act’s child support enforcement provisions will achieve the results envisioned by the consensus.

In this Article, I will show that the child support enforcement system is fundamentally flawed, imposing tremendous burdens on welfare mothers without saving welfare dollars. I will argue that the current consensus on child support, as reflected in the Family Support Act, is based on two conflicting, unsubstantiated beliefs: first, that greater enforcement efforts can produce substantial savings, and secondly, that child support enforcement for welfare families is a social benefit that should be pursued regardless of the fiscal and social costs. Finally, I will discuss the strengths and limitations of several alternatives to welfare child support enforcement which either have been proposed or are in the early stages of implementation.

This Article will be presented in five sections. First, I will describe the current child support enforcement system for welfare families – a separate system of family law for the poor. Section II reviews the development of this dual system of family law, with its primary motive of saving welfare dollars. In section III, I will show that the welfare child support system has not fulfilled its purpose of reducing tax expenditures for welfare. Section IV analyzes the fiscal promises of the child support provisions in the Family Support Act and discusses the recent upsurge of punitive and moral justifications for enforcing child support now that the tax savings have not materialized. Section V shows that recent liberal proposals for reforming the welfare child support system do not address the system’s structural defects. Section V also reviews other child support reforms currently in place in a few states and suggests other ways that child support enforcement for welfare families can be made more cost effective and less punitive.

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