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How states humiliate single parents who need government assistance

The invasive challenge faced by single parents seeking government assistance.



How states humiliate single parents who need government assistance
How states humiliate single parents who need government assistance

To receive government assistance in the US is to submit yourself to a whole host of requirements, some reasonable, some harsh. Each state, and each program within it, has their own requirements, which might be a test of income, of assets, or even of behavior. Some are reasonable — a millionaire probably doesn’t need food stamps; others are more punitive. A disabled single man wanting to get Medicaid in Maryland, for instance, has to show he doesn’t have assets totaling over $2,500. To receive unemployment benefits in Texas, quitting a job to take care of a child makes you ineligible, unless that child has a medical illness.

One requirement is especially odious, and little-known and little-studied: In many states, for many aid programs, you must agree to cooperate with authorities on enforcing child support against the parent of your child.

Depending on the state where they live, a single parent may have to agree to help the government recoup child support in order to receive child care assistance, food stamps, cash welfare, or Medicaid. They may have to establish parenthood of their child, provide estimated dates and locations of conception, home or work addresses of the other parent, or even sign away their right to child support payments to the state.

Given that around 80 percent of custodial parents are women, this is a welfare restriction with a disproportionate effect on one gender — and one that explicitly punishes you for being a single parent.

These requirements have rarely been at the forefront of public debates about aid programs, which often focus on work requirements and income thresholds, but their effect is significant. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the cash welfare program created by President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996, requires child support cooperation universally. About half of states also require it for key aid programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and even child care subsidies. It continues to be a priority for conservative state lawmakers: Iowa recently passed a cooperation requirement to receive Medicaid in the state. Kansas came within a single vote of passing a similar measure for food stamps. Conservative think tanks have been pushing these policies nationwide, arguing that if the government has to help a single parent, it’s only fair that they help extract something from the other parent.

These requirements are more common in conservative states, but are by no means limited to them. They range in severity, but generally require single parents to assist the state to open child support cases against non-custodial parents. In practical terms that might be as simple as providing a father’s name and address.

In other cases, like when the father isn’t known, a parent seeking an exemption from these requirements might be forced to provide intimate details to government aid workers or, in cases involving domestic abuse, justify why they fear for their child’s safety before learning whether they’ll get assistance to buy food or pay for their health care.

Child-support cooperation requirements subject single parents to the state invading their privacy

These restrictions are invasive, and much of their impact on welfare recipients is predictable.

Their first function is to act as yet another “administrative burden” to people receiving benefits. For any government aid program, every additional form that must be filled out, piece of mail that must be answered, or documentation that must be submitted is a step that can be forgotten or failed.

Too often, people who are eligible for assistance fail to receive it for these procedural reasons. Medicaid unwinding — the recent resumption of eligibility verifications that were waived during the Covid-19 pandemic’s huge drop in Medicaid enrollees — has been an example of this problem at an enormous scale. Millions of people are losing Medicaid coverage with the retightened rules, and yet many of them remain eligible for the program. They just aren’t responding to the government’s mailed notices on time, or they haven’t sent in the right forms.

Politico followed two women in Arkansas who both lost Medicaid because they didn’t submit paperwork — and, in both cases, it was related to child support cooperation. There’s no indication these women were unwilling to provide the necessary documentation, but as the bureaucratic requirements stack higher and higher, it becomes difficult to make sure every box is checked. (It also creates more places for the state to fail; in Florida, Spanish speakers have to wait on average 2.5 hours on hold to reach the Medicaid call center.)

They can also act as a deterrent that stops people from seeking help in the first place. One of the difficulties with quantifying the harm of child support requirements is that states rarely measure the cause of a person losing benefits, like the two women from Arkansas. Another is that it’s impossible to know how many people simply decide not to apply because of some combination of fear, despair, or fatigue.

Not surprisingly, there are posts on social media sites like Reddit from women looking for a “state that doesn’t require child support to receive food stamps,” because “my child’s father … is a very angry and hostile guy and I’m just trying to separate myself from him.” A 2005 KFF report described this perverse effect: “[A local caseworker] explained that when younger mothers found out about the cooperation requirement, they usually decided to forgo Medicaid. These mothers often have a bond to the father, she said, and are less likely to have serious medical problems. They choose to go without preventive health care.”

Administrative burdens and deterrent effects are bloodless terms that can mask the cold budgetary motivations for these policies: States can keep their spending down by coming up with hurdles that reduce people taking advantage of the benefits to which they should be entitled.

But child support cooperation requirements also seem to have a third, cruel purpose: to humiliate these parents before the state.

A survey of state employee manuals, testimony before state legislatures, and social media posts makes it hard to avoid that conclusion. One woman explaining her experience in Oklahoma applying for TANF writes on Reddit, “When I said that my baby’s father was now permanently disabled and would not be involved or able to pay child support due to living in a medical facility, they said, ‘We cannot sign you up for these benefits, so if you change your mind, come back and see us.’” The Medicaid caseworker in that KFF study described the pit over which the state dangles people in need: “Older mothers — those in their 30s with diabetes and hypertension — often realize that their precarious health leaves them no choice but to cooperate.”

Nobody claiming a tax write-off, a homeownership deduction, or a tax-preferenced savings account for their child’s college is subjected to the same indignities.

It’s true that for some applicants, these requirements won’t amount to much on top of the already onerous restrictions they face. If you’re already receiving child support, if you don’t mind sharing personal information with agency employees, and if you’re great at keeping track of deadlines and forms, the requirements will be just another box to check. But for many people, the complexity of these applications is extraordinary, and the different requirements for different programs can be daunting. Those using multiple forms of aid at once may face multiple cooperation requirements from multiple agencies.

Citizens who are lucky enough to never need these programs may not realize just how intrusive states can be. Every state with these restrictions has a version of a “good cause” waiver — a way that parents can get an exemption from the requirement for a reason the state deems valid. An internal document intended for West Virginia state employees gives intricate instructions about how to determine whether to grant a waiver: Was “[t]he child ... conceived as the result of incest or forcible rape”? Could cooperation reasonably lead to “physical or emotional harm to the child for whom support is being sought?”

If someone in West Virginia does claim a good cause exemption, multiple government workers are responsible for determining the applicant’s credibility, including, somehow, evaluating things like “the intensity and probable duration of the emotional impairment.” If you are a single mother in West Virginia with two children and need to claim a waiver, going through this entire process — revealing past abuse or justifying a fear of future violence, having a slate of state employees assess your credibility about your own perceptions of your family’s safety — ultimately allows you to receive around $542 a month in cash assistance and Medicaid benefits.

Michigan’s employee manual, outlining perhaps the most intrusive process of those reviewed for this story, instructs even more invasive lines of questioning. “​​Ask questions that elicit definite, non-evasive answers. For example … ask for the names of sexual partners during the conception period,” the manual advises. If you tolerate these questions in order to receive SNAP benefits, you’ll end up receiving around $3.50 per person per day for a family of three if the state finds your answers satisfactory.

If this seems like an awful lot of work by many state employees and agencies for what is ultimately a trivial amount of money, it is. Iowa’s governor signed into law new child-support cooperation requirements in June as part of a bevy of additional restrictions for SNAP, Medicaid, and other programs. Prior to passage, Iowa’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, the legislature’s research arm, projected that ensuring custodial parents were cooperating with child support would require hiring more than 100 people, most earning over $50,000, and some earning over $120,000. The staffing costs for the state would top $6 million annually, with the projection that those costs will be offset as people lose their benefits.

A pilot program run in North Carolina found this to be a pointless exercise, and a useful example of what these sorts of requirements attached to welfare programs actually do versus what they’re purported to do. That state tested a cooperation requirement for single parents applying to receive child care subsidies across three counties.

State employees had to be trained on the new requirements and were given additional documents to mail and track each year, “creat[ing] new work for staff who are already burdened with paperwork.” The pilot implemented this requirement for 1,857 applications, and a full 90 percent of applicants received good cause exemptions. Of the remaining 194 cases, 33 ended up withdrawing their application. After everything was said and done — a bill passed, a pilot program run, employees trained, families hassled — there were a grand total of 26 new child support orders, with “payments made on 12 of them … for a total of $7,356.93.” Implementing this statewide would have cost $2 million.

These burdensome government rules aren’t really accomplishing anything

One way to understand the point of some of these restrictions, given their costs and benefits, is to see them as a tool of patriarchal control. Some of the jobs right-wing governors are creating seem almost a textbook definition of “make-work.” Kansas has had since 2015 a child support requirement to receive child care subsidies. It’s so punitive it violates federal regulations and the state is risking a $2.7 million fine. The net effect of the policy has been to deny child care subsidies to an average of 22 children per month, or more than 250 in a year.

Conservatives tend to support cooperation requirements by invoking hypothetical deadbeat fathers not doing their part for their children or the mother. But the pattern found in North Carolina aligns closely with what welfare and child support experts say: Single mothers are already incentivized to seek child support if the father of their children has a well-paying job, health insurance their children could use, and so on. They don’t need state aid agencies to remind them.

And in cases where parents intentionally have not sought out child support payments, they typically have a good reason, whether that’s fear of violence, having an informal arrangement with the other parent to provide in-kind assistance like child care and transportation (which can sometimes be more useful than cash), or the other parent simply having no money. State and federal governments ought to trust that these parents know what they’re doing and give them the aid that they are otherwise entitled to.

TANF stands apart as the sole program with a strict, nationwide cooperation requirement. In the case of TANF, the state is not collecting money for the custodial parent; it is collecting it for the state. A parent signs their right to child support payments over to the state, and a 2021 report from the Urban Institute found that “as of 2020, in 24 states families participating in TANF received none of the child support paid on their behalf.” Twenty-six states pass through small amounts, usually between $50 and $100. It is the only welfare program that attempts to fund itself through a revenue stream the recipient would otherwise be entitled to. If the non-custodial parent doesn’t pay, they become in debt to the state, which can use extreme measures to attempt to collect, including by revoking drivers’ licenses and ordering jail time. This combination of debt and punishments for not paying the debt often profoundly disrupts their lives, making them less helpful partners in raising their children, according to 2018 work by researchers Heather Hahn, Kathryn Edin, and Lauren Abrahams.

While some of these non-custodial parents may be unsympathetic or worse, research has found that most non-custodial parents who do not pay child support fail to do so because they don’t have the money. One study by Hahn, Edin, and Abrahams found over half of past due child support was from just 11 percent of parents, most of whom had annual income of under $10,000. Taking their licenses away and giving them interest-accruing debt only hurts the ability of non-custodial parents to increase their income.

The backwardness of these policies is becoming obvious even in some states that have enthusiastically implemented them. Mississippi in May removed its cooperation requirement for child care subsidies after decades of advocacy work (though the requirement remains for SNAP). Efforts by conservative advocacy groups to add new requirements failed in Kansas in 2023 and Montana in 2021, and a Trump-era memo encouraging these requirements didn’t gain much traction.

But to really fix this, federal action is going to be required. These programs all use huge sums of federal money with few strings attached, allowing states to implement these kinds of invasive tests.

As a country, we’ve operated under a perverse version of the maxim that it’s better to let 10 guilty men go free than one suffer: that it’s better that 10 deserving people receive nothing than a single undeserving one get health care or food. Small-government conservatives create bureaucracies to try to prevent it, and states micromanage peoples’ lives watching for it. But the government doesn’t need to operate that way; it can start with a presumption that Americans are doing their best and deserve a baseline of dignity.