Families eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are required to assign their rights to child support to the state in order to receive TANF benefits. States may retain child support payments collected on behalf of TANF families to offset the cost of welfare payments or may pass some or all collected funds to the custodial parent. States may also disregard some or all of a pass-through amount when determining TANF participants’ benefits so that portion of the child support is not considered in benefit calculations. Full pass-through policies allow the custodial parent, usually the mother, to receive all child support paid; no portion is retained by the state.
Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)
Increased child support receipt
Increased paternity establishment
Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes
Reduced child maltreatment
Evidence of Effectiveness
There is strong evidence that full pass-through and disregard of child support payments increases custodial parents’ likelihood of receiving payments as well as the amount they receive. Paternity is also established more quickly when the custodial parent receives all child support paid on their behalf, and that amount is not considered in benefit calculations, than when child support payments are retained to offset welfare payments1, 2, 3, 4.
Full pass-through may also reduce the risk of child maltreatment5 and reduce cohabitation rates between mothers and men who are not the fathers of their children6. Full pass-through does not appear to reduce custodial mothers’ participation in the workforce7.
Overall, more generous pass-through and disregard policies are associated with higher levels of child support receipt and paternity establishment than less generous or partial pass-through policies2, 4. However, partial pass-through policies, including the $50 pass-through policy in many states before 1996 and the current $150 policy in Washington DC, have been shown to increase rates and amount of child support receipt8, 9. When pass-through and disregard amounts are reduced there may be an increase in informal support from the non-custodial parent10.
Generous pass-through and disregard policies generally decrease government outlays on some safety net services such as child care and food stamps but can increase other government costs3. An assessment of Wisconsin’s full pass-through and disregard suggests little additional cost to government2. Modeling suggests that costs are likely to be higher for state governments than federal governments1.
A 2015 report projected that establishing full pass-through of all child support collected on behalf of TANF families, disregarding it in calculating TANF benefits, and disregarding up to $100 of it in calculating SNAP benefits would reduce the number of children in poverty by approximately 89,000 children. These changes would cost approximately $1.1 billion11.
Impact on Disparities
Pass-through and disregard dollar amounts vary by state. As of July 2015, many states have no pass-through or disregard, and 23 states have some form of pass-through and disregard in place. States are required to pay the federal government a portion of child support collected on behalf of TANF recipients; amounts paid are equal to the Medicaid match rate. If all child support is passed through to the custodial parent, states must still pay the federal government from other funds12.
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1 Urban-Wheaton 2008 - Wheaton L, Sorensen E. The potential impact of increasing child support payments to TANF families. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2008.
2 Cancian 2008* - Cancian M, Meyer DR, Caspar E. Welfare and child support: Complements, not substitutes. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 2008;27(2):354-75.
3 Pirog 2006* - Pirog MA, Ziol-Guest KM. Child support enforcement: Programs and policies, impacts and questions. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 2006;25(4):943-90.
4 Cassetty 2005* - Cassetty JH, Hutson R. Effectiveness of federal incentives in shaping child support enforcement outcomes. Children and Youth Services Review. 2005;27(3):271-89.
5 Cancian 2013* - Cancian M, Yang MY, Slack KS. The effect of additional child support income on the risk of child maltreatment. Social Service Review. 2013;87(3):417-437.
6 Cancian 2014 - Cancian M, Meyer DR. Testing the economic independence hypothesis: The effect of an exogenous increase in child support on subsequent marriage and cohabitation. Demography. 2014;51(3):857-880.
7 Cuesta 2015* - Cuesta L, Cancian M. The effect of child support on the labor supply of custodial mothers participating in TANF. Children and Youth Services Review. 2015;54:49-56.
8 Urban-Lippold 2010 - Lippold K, Nichols A, Sorensen E. Evaluation of the $150 child support pass-through and disregard policy in the District of Columbia. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2010.
9 Urban-Sorensen 1999 - Sorensen E, Halpern A. Child support enforcement: How well is it doing? Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 1999.
10 Gunter 2013* - Gunter SP. Effects of child support pass-through and disregard policies on in-kind child support. Review of Economics of the Household. 2013;11(2):193-209.
11 CDF 2015 - Ending child poverty now. Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund (CDF); 2015.
12 OPRE-Cohen 2016 - Cohen E, Minton S, Thompson M, Crowe E, Giannarelli L. Welfare rules databook: State TANF policies as of July 2015. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE); 2016.
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