Child Support Lessons from Canada: A Different Approach for Parents with Low Incomes

Author: Susan Stanton . Date: March 17, 2017

The Waterloo Region of Ontario recently made some key changes related to child support policy as part of a larger poverty reduction strategy. These statutory changes apparently reflect an income support goal on the part of Waterloo policymakers. Those changes include one approach already used in the United States and one that should be considered by policymakers here to support families in their efforts to move toward economic security:

1-no longer deducting child support as income from benefit checks received through social assistance and

2-no longer requiring the pursuit of child support as an eligibility requirement for social assistance.

In part, these changes are grounded in the understanding that noncustodial parents are more likely to pay child support when they know that the money will go directly to benefit their children. Also, it seems that policy makers in Waterloo have come to recognize that custodial parents who are eligible for government assistance also need the total amount of any cash contribution their co-parents make.

Child support and public assistance philosophies, policies and practices in the United States play out differently. Under federal law, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) eligibility requires parents to “cooperate” with the state child support agency in establishing orders for paternity and child support child (Sec. 454. [42 U.S.C. 654] of the Social Security Act).  This federal policy requires TANF (and other social service) applicants, to assist the state in establishing and enforcing orders by: naming the likely noncustodial parents, providing contact information, participating in genetic testing, appearing in court as a witness, handing over to the state any cash received by the custodial parent from a noncustodial parent in arrears, and performing other activities that-in the discretion of the agency-assist in enforcement of the child support order. Currently, in the Unites States, cooperation with the child support enforcement agency is required for TANF and Medicaid benefits. While there is not a federal requirement for the , the Food Stamp Program (FSP) or Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) assistance, many states require child support cooperation to access or receive full benefits from those programs.

Given that there are parents that willfully and intentionally don’t pay child support, it is reasonable to assume that cooperating with the child support enforcement agency is in the best interest of children,  custodial parents and noncustodial parents, but oftentimes, that isn’t the case. For example, we recently heard from a custodial parent who was scheduled to be in court as part of paternity establishment and her baby woke up during the night with an ear infection and all the associated challenges. The custodial parent could not get through on the telephone to her local child support enforcement agency to let them know she wouldn’t be in court that day. Because she failed to appear in court, the agency labelled the custodial parent as “non-cooperative” which resulted in the custodial parent losing her Medicaid insurance benefit and getting sanctioned by TANF (which means less cash). A noncustodial parent recently shared that he was ordered to court for a child support hearing on a day he was scheduled to work at his new job. Consequently, he was forced to choose between skipping work and losing the job the court ordered him to find or skipping court which is a violation of the child support cooperation requirement, and risk being found in contempt, serving jail time, thereby losing his job.  For that father, cooperating with the child support enforcement agency did not help him positively contribute to his child’s life. Those examples highlight a few of the ways that practical application of the child support cooperation requirement disrupts and detracts from the efforts of many families with low-incomes and employment instability to care for themselves and their children. Linking child support cooperation to social assistance programs can have the impact of taking economic resources from the children and families with the greatest need, denying services to children and parents that programs are supposed to serve, creating debt and furthering economic instability for custodial parents, non-custodial parents and their families and communities. In other words, in the United States, cooperating with the state child support enforcement agency can disrupt the stability of low-income families and not cooperating can have dire impacts as well.

It is estimated that the Waterloo Region of Ontario, Canada will put an extra $75 million a year into the pockets of parents with low incomes which increases the likelihood that child support will be paid to custodial parents by not deducting child support from noncustodial parents’ social assistance checks and by not requiring child support cooperation to receive social assistance. These efforts to change policies which create and/or perpetuate the cycle of poverty might just help custodial parents, noncustodial parents and their children move toward economic security.

Child support cooperation is a far-reaching policy in the United States that undermines the economic security of low-incomes families at every turn. This is the first piece in a series on child support cooperation policy and practice.