For many in Legal Aid’s client community, the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated already dire financial circumstances. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, many of our clients were low-wage workers living paycheck to paycheck and relying on supplemental public benefits to make ends meet. Other clients were struggling with chronic unemployment or underemployment, unable to obtain full-time jobs due to disabilities, criminal records, or other barriers to employment such as the lack of transportation or childcare. Given the massive layoffs, hiring freezes, and increased demand for government assistance we have witnessed over the last few weeks, it is clear that our clients are among those Americans who will be hit the hardest during this period of economic recession.
Last week, in an effort to provide economic relief to Americans during this national emergency, Congress enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which among other provisions will provide direct financial aid to most Americans and their families. Under the CARES Act, individuals with annual incomes of $75,000 or less will receive stimulus checks of $1,200, plus an extra $500 for every dependent child in their household. These funds – though nowhere near enough to compensate for the financial losses that most Americans will suffer during this crisis, and not available to all who need them (including members of our immigrant communities) – are meant to provide some modicum of relief to those who are struggling the most.
However, one group of otherwise eligible Americans will be partially or wholly denied their stimulus checks – those who owe back child support payments. Instead, their relief funds will be intercepted by the U.S. Treasury Department under the Federal Tax Refund Offset Program, which similarly garnishes the income tax refunds of noncustodial parents who are behind on child support payments. The Treasury Department will then send the intercepted funds to state child support agencies for processing and distribution.
In some cases, the state agency will send these funds to the custodial parents to whom the back child support payments are owed. In a large number of cases, however, states will actually keep and deposit these funds into their own coffers in order to recoup the money paid out to custodial parents who receive welfare funds under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In virtually every state, when custodial parents apply for TANF cash assistance, they must relinquish their right to collect child support from the noncustodial parent and assign that right to their state government. The state then initiates child support cases against noncustodial parents and keeps the money it collects as a repayment for funds it paid custodial parents through TANF. Indeed, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement estimates that around $24.3 billion of the nation’s back child support arrears are owed to state governments through TANF cases. Here in the District, approximately 28% (or roughly $66 million) of outstanding child support arrears is owed to the government, not the custodial parent.
Through the garnishment of stimulus relief funds for payment of back child support, state governments stand to collect and keep millions (if not billions) of dollars at a time of national crisis when low-income custodial and noncustodial parents alike are struggling, and every dollar counts. By pocketing the money received from these stimulus checks, states are directly taking away emergency funds from noncustodial parents who might have other dependents in their own households, who might be struggling to pay rent after being laid off, and/or who might have planned to spend those funds on the children they share with custodial parents. Awarding states such an unexpected windfall at the cost of family stability would therefore defeat the intended purposes of the CARES Act (providing support to struggling families and injecting cash into the economy).
The District’s child support agency, the Child Support Services Division (CSSD), is committed to enhancing the well-being of children and families. We, therefore, urge them to consider adopting policies that would ensure that this money goes to the low-income households it was intended to support. For example, the District could choose to forego collection of these funds for TANF reimbursement and forgive any arrearages that accumulate during this public health emergency.
Legal Aid looks forward to working with our partners at CSSD to ensure that individuals and families in the District receive as much financial support as possible during this time of economic turbulence. We will continue to monitor this issue and update this page with any new developments.