How To Help Welfare Mothers
By Douglas J. Besharov
This article originally appeared in The New York Times, November 13, 1996.
The new welfare law allows the states to terminate something
called the "$50 child- support disregard," and some states are doing so to save
money. This provision allows welfare mothers to keep the first $50 a month paid
to them by absent fathers, and is meant to encourage mothers to help government
collect child support.
Welfare advocates are bemoaning this cut in benefits, saying that
it will hurt mothers in states that provide low benefits. But if advocates want
to give these women a real financial boost, they should admit that the current
provision is all but meaningless. Instead, they should concentrate on giving
mothers a real reason to help government collect child support.
Uncollected child support is a measure of our society's failure to
respond to family breakdown. Only about 60 percent of all single mothers have
orders of child support. Of these orders, only about half are fully paid. For a
quarter of existing orders, no payments are made at all. For mothers on welfare,
the figures are even more dismal.
Welfare law itself is a major reason why collections are so low.
In a misguided effort to save taxpayer dollars, government had pocketed all but
the first $50 collected from fathers with children on Aid to Families With
Dependent Children. Moreover, if the mother had received the $50, her food stamp
payments were reduced, so that her net gain was only about $35. And in any month
when the father did not make a payment, she had to go through bureaucratic hoops
to make sure that her food-stamp allocation went back up.
Thus it was relatively easy for an absent father to use small,
under-the-table payments to discourage her from turning him in. After all, going
to the authorities would only alienate a man with whom she may have had an
More important, she may have been greeted with hostility by
friends and relatives who view child support as a "tax from city hall." In some
inner-city neighborhoods, such support is called a "tax on black fathers."
In response to this problem, a number of states received Federal
waivers to raise the "disregard" cap to $75 or $100. Some states allowed women
to receive the entire payment if they were in a welfare-to-work program. These
changes are a step in the right direction, but they do not go far enough.
To encourage welfare mothers to turn in delinquent fathers, we
have to make it worth their while. Mothers should be allowed to keep a larger
portion of what is collected, perhaps as much as 50 percent, until their income
reaches the poverty line.
Some have criticized this idea by saying that it would create two
classes of welfare recipients. But if collections increased substantially, it
would be worth it. And, who knows, it might make men more careful about becoming
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