Welfare Reform:

Child Support an Uncertain Income Supplement for Families Leaving Welfare

HEHS-98-168: Published: Aug 3, 1998. Publicly Released: Aug 3, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on how successful states are likely to be in obtaining child support for families whose benefits are subject to time limits, focusing on: (1) how successful states that experimented with time-limited benefits before welfare reform have been in obtaining child support for families who reach their limits; (2) how successful states have been in obtaining child support for families within a 5-year period, the maximum time a family may receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits; and (3) the implications time limits have for states and families.

GAO noted that: (1) many TANF families may not be able to count on child support as a steady source of income when their time-limited welfare benefits expire; (2) in the first three states to enforce welfare benefit time limits--Connecticut, Florida, and Virginia--only about 20 to 30 percent of families had any child support collected for them in the 12 months before their welfare benefits were terminated; (3) about one-half or more of the child support cases without collections lacked a child support order legally obligating a noncustodial parent to pay child support at the time the families' assistance was terminated, despite having a long history in the child support program before time limits were implemented; (4) for families whose child support was secured, the median collections among the three states ranged from a total of $581 to $1,348 for the 12-month period; (5) in two high-performing child support states, Minnesota and Washington, GAO observed better outcomes for a sample of Aid to Families with Dependent Children child support cases that first opened in 1992 and remained open for 5 years; (6) about two-thirds of the families received some child support in the last 12 months of that period; (7) support order establishment rates were higher for these cases as well: in both states, orders were established within 5 years for more than 80 percent of the cases that needed them; (8) the median amounts of child support collected for these families ranged from $1,875 to $2,118 for the 12-month period; (9) despite these outcomes, about one-third of the child support clients in these states reached the end of the 5-year period without any child support; (10) to better ensure that child support is available for families in a time-limited welfare system, states will need to improve their child support performance for families already in the welfare system and for those who enter it for the first time; (11) in the three states GAO studied that had imposed time limits on families already receiving aid, from one-half to three-quarters of the families could not get child support because the state did not or could not locate the noncustodial parent; (12) it is also important for states to move quickly to pursue child support for families that have just begun receiving aid; (13) state officials told GAO that information on noncustodial parents is best pursued early and aggressively to achieve successful outcomes; and (14) GAO's analysis showed that successful outcomes are most likely within 2 years after a family begins receiving child support services.

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