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The US Department of Agriculture took a step forward in the fight against poverty and food insecurity yesterday, encouraging states to make greater use of child support cooperation requirements as a tool to help single parents and their children receive the parental support they are due.
In a memo sent to state agencies, the USDA urged state directors of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) to institute requirements that program beneficiaries cooperate with child support enforcement. In other words, states should require custodial and non-custodial parents to enter child support agreements as part of the process for either party to receive SNAP benefits.
This is a welcome development that I have written to support in the past, and the reasoning is fairly simple. SNAP is a huge program, serving nearly 40 million Americans, many of whom are children living in households led by a single parent. About 37% of children with a parent living outside their home live in poverty, significantly higher than the poverty rate among children living in two-parent homes.
Without question, part of the reason many of these children remain below the poverty line and rely on SNAP for assistance purchasing food is that the non-custodial parents do not contribute child support payments as regularly as they should. Less than half of poor custodial parents even had an agreement for payment of child support in 2015 (the last year for which data are available).
Efforts to increase the number of agreements in order to increase the rate of payments should be applauded — and that is precisely what the USDA is doing with its latest guidance. Ultimately, the USDA and state agencies aim to close the child support deficit — the $13.5 billion gap between what custodial parents are owed collectively and what they currently receive.
Critics of the idea of SNAP instituting cooperation requirements have often noted that it may not be in the best interest of the custodial parent or her children to require cooperation. It may undermine the relationship between custodial and non-custodial parents to force the non-custodial parent to pay child support begrudgingly, and could lead to abuse and violence.
This is a legitimate concern, and the USDA addresses it. The memo carves out a “good cause” exemption that encourages state agencies to examine “circumstances in which cooperation may be against the best interest of the child.”
States should certainly be careful to make sure they are not introducing children or custodial parents into dangerous situations, but prior levels of child support agreements indicate that more cooperation is possible without introducing significant risk. Just 15 years ago the agreement rate was nearly 60% — surely many of those agreements could be restored without inviting the risk of harm.
At a time when Congress struggles to find ways to improve our antipoverty programs, executive agencies are right to take steps like this one. It is fully within USDA’s purview to issue guidance on how states can administer the program. And the agency shows respect for our federalist system in encouraging states to be flexible and innovative in implementing reforms. If states are wise, they will take USDA’s advice and craft careful child support cooperation requirements in SNAP to help children in poverty get the support they need.
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