Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Implications for Child Support Policy
The child support estimates presented in Table 2 can be compared to the welfare payments the government makes to mothers who fit in each category studied. As an illustration, consider a single nonblack 17-year-old with one child, living in Wisconsin, a state with relatively generous welfare benefits. In 1994, the maximum AFDC benefit provided to this mother would be $440 per month. The predicted child support obligation of that mother's partner ($190 per month) represents 43% of the value of the welfare benefit she receives. Federal law requires that additional payments by the father can increase the income of the welfare recipient mother by only $50 per month. The remaining payments by the father must be used to reduce the AFDC payments to the mother. It is important to note that this rule may affect the mother's incentive to establish paternity and subsequently pursue a child support award. In states with less generous welfare payments than Wisconsin, child support collection would offset an even greater proportion of public welfare expenditures.
Of course, the payments described here presume perfect enforcement of the child support law. In reality, that is not possible, since enforcement is costly and fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, when policymakers determine the degree to which child support laws should be enforced, they should consider the resources that might be raised through child support and evaluate the effect those resources might have on the cost to taxpayers of assisting poor children. Policymakers commonly underestimate the contributions fathers can make to AFDC mothers by failing to anticipate how the earning power of these fathers will change as they mature during the first 18 years of the child's life.
This article has examined the potential child support available to women who collect public assistance. The evidence presented here suggests that absent fathers are able to provide a substantial level of support, even as much as 40% to 50% of AFDC benefits. This support could help alleviate the high level of poverty among these families and defer public expenditures on their behalf. Recognizing that absent fathers will experience income growth over the life of their child, policymakers should reassess the benefits of rigorous paternity establishment and child support enforcement.