NC Budget and Tax Center

Senate bill will take food assistance away from families while costing N.C. millions

Today, the North Carolina Senate will vote on a bill aimed at punishing parents who struggle to keep up with child support payments by taking away their food assistance. Senate Bill 551, the Child Support Cooperation Act, is based off of myths and stereotypes rather than an actual understanding of what families with low-incomes actually need.

Here are some realities about the negative impacts of child support enforcement in SNAP:

  1. Taking away food from struggling parents will not result in increased payments.

Under this policy, North Carolina can choose to punish custodial parents who choose not to open a child support case or modify or enforce an existing support order, in addition to parents not keeping up with payments. Child support enforcement for SNAP families is already fairly strong. In fact, over the past 20 years, the amount of financial support paid by parents has increased by 22 percent.  Additionally, the program already provides incentives for parents who do cooperate.

  1. This policy risks increasing food insecurity among survivors of abuse and the children they care for.

The reality is that many non-custodial parents are providing informal support. Parents who earn low wages and have inconsistent schedules may pay when they are able. Other parents may support their children in other ways by co-parenting or buying supplies. Parents who choose not to participate in the child support system often do so for good reason. For example, a study from Texas found that more than 4 in 10 mothers who did not receive any type of child support were survivors of abuse.

Senate Bill 551 doesn’t acknowledge that people’s lives, circumstances, and needs are complex. Instead, this blanket policy threatens to remove food from people already struggling to make ends meet who are caring for children.

  1. This policy is costly and complex to administer.

Similar to other policies that seek to limit who can access federally funded social support programs, Senate Bill 551 will cost the state money to administer and will result in zero savings. A study done in 2017 estimated implementing this policy would cost North Carolina more than $5.6 million. In addition to the costs, attempting to enforce this would add additional paperwork and red tape for families seeking food assistance as well as the DSS offices and case workers charges with helping them.

Just last year, North Carolina ran a similar pilot program requiring families receiving child-care subsidies to participate in the child support enforcement program. The study found that only 90 percent of families were not already participating or exempt. In the end, forcing families to participate resulted in $7,000 in increased child support payments in 12 families while costing the state $2 million to implement.

There are better ways to support struggling families.

This is not the first time a bill like this has been seen. In fact, a 2014 study found that out of 10 states that had adopted this very same policy, seven states had rescinded because they discovered it was costly, burdensome, and did not help families.

There are ways to encourage cooperation in the child support enforcement system that do not put people at risk of food insecurity. Rather than taking away food support, lawmakers should seek to understand the needs of struggling families and remove the real and primary barriers to putting food on the table.

Brian Kennedy II is a Public Policy Analyst for the Budget & Tax Center at the N.C. Justice Center.

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