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
Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes
Increased paternity establishment
Reduced child maltreatment
Evidence of Effectiveness
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 policies1, 5. Partial pass-through policies, including the $50 pass-through policy in many states before 1996 and the current $150 policy in Washington DC, can also still increase rates and amount of child support payments made by non-custodial parents3, 6. However, when Maryland implemented a partial pass-through policy in 2019 there was not a significant change in the number of child support order cases or non-custodial parents’ payments in the 6 months after implementation; the policy change did increase household income for affected families by passing on some of the child support paid via the state7. Full pass-through and disregard is more likely to decrease poverty for single-parent families than policies that withhold payments for the state or count child support as income when calculating other benefits8.
Generous pass-through policies may increase non-custodial parents’ willingness to pay child support by ensuring their payments go to their children instead of being withheld by the state9, 10, 11. When pass-through and disregard amounts are reduced there may be an increase in informal support from the non-custodial parent12. Paternity may be 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 payments4, 5.
Full pass-through may reduce the risk of child maltreatment13 and reduce cohabitation rates between mothers and men who are not the fathers of their children14. Full pass-through does not appear to reduce custodial mothers’ participation in the workforce15.
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 costs4. An assessment of Wisconsin’s full pass-through and disregard suggests little additional cost to government1. Modeling suggests that costs are likely to be higher for state governments than federal governments16.
A 2019 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 child poverty rate by 0.5%17.
Potential to decrease disparities: Supported by some evidence
There is some evidence that full pass-through and disregard of child support has potential to decrease disparities in income for families with children who receive TANF support, as pass-through policies can increase non-custodial parents’ child support payments, the amount paid1, 2, 3, and the amount of child support that custodial parents receive7. Experts suggest the additional income families receive through more generous pass-through may reduce the poverty rate16, 17; full pass-through and disregard has the greatest potential to decrease poverty for single-parent families8. Policies that prioritize using child support payments to reimburse the state for TANF participants, rather than passing it on to the parents, disproportionately affect black and Hispanic families20.
Child support pass through and disregard are policies that apply to families receiving TANF, the most recent support program for families in economic distress.
Slavery and Jim Crow perpetuated policies of white control over black bodies and behavior. These racists policies were used to establish the foundation of who is “deserving” versus “undeserving” of cash assistance programs for mothers and were codified in federal aid programs such as the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program (later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC), created in 1935 as part of the New Deal. States excluded many black families and other families of color from the ADC program and, during the 1940s and 1950s, imposed punitive regulations to control mothers’ work and social lives, with a disproportionate impact on black mothers. Welfare reform and its accompanying narrative of personal responsibility led to the creation of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which replaced AFDC in 1996. The TANF program has many rules that reflect the history of anti-black racism and sexism, with harsh work requirements and arbitrary time limits reducing access for families, and low benefits and limited work supports for parents worsening the well-being and economic security of families experiencing economic hardship and resulting in disproportionate harm to black women and children21.
States withhold official child support payments paid by non-custodial parents on behalf of children in the TANF program and apply the revenue to TANF program costs. Child support pass-through encourages non-custodial parents to participate in the formal support program and rewards custodial parents who are cooperating with the state in paternity establishment. Pass-through and disregard policies have been changed several times at the federal level. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) eliminated the federal government’s $50 pass-through and disregard requirement, leading all but 16 states to eliminate pass through policies as of 2004. The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 brought back federal support for the pass-through and disregard. States can receive federal cost-sharing on amounts for up to $100 pass-through per month for one child and $200 per month for two or more children4, 10, 12.
- Who is harmed by mandatory work requirements and behavioral or other eligibility exclusions in TANF programs?
- Why do so few families in poverty qualify for cash assistance? How can TANF programs be redesigned to strengthen its ability to help families with the greatest need?
- What motivation do non-custodial parents have to provide child support through official channels if that support will not fully go to their children?
- Is child support retained by the state used to benefit families in need, or diverted to other programs?
Pass-through and disregard dollar amounts vary by state. As of June 2020, 27 states and Washington DC have some form of pass-through and disregard in place. Colorado is the first state that passes through and disregards 100% of child support payments. Minnesota passes through all child support payments and disregards $100 for one child and $200 for two or more children. Eight other states allow pass-through and disregard of $100 for one child and $200 for two or more children10, 18. 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 state’s Medicaid match rate. If all child support is passed through to the custodial parent, states must still pay the federal government from other funds19.
NCSL-Child support policies - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Child support policies: Implications for low-income fathers and their children. January 2021.
Aspen-Child support 2020 - The Aspen Institute, Good+Foundation. Paying support to families: Child support policy fact sheet. September 2020.
* Journal subscription may be required for access.
1 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.
2 Zolot 2020 - Zolot T, Martinez-Schiferl M, Desbien L, Kauffmann M. Dollar for dollar: Why the child support pass-through makes sense. Policy & Practice. 2020;78(6):5,38-39.
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 Urban-Sorensen 1999 - Sorensen E, Halpern A. Child support enforcement: How well is it doing? Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 1999.
7 Smith 2021 - Smith H, Hall LA. Maryland’s child support pass-through policy: Exploring impacts on TCA families. Baltimore: School of Social Work, University of Maryland; 2021.
8 Skinner 2017* - Skinner C, Meyer DR, Cook K, Fletcher M. Child maintenance and social security interactions: The poverty reduction effects in model lone parent families across four countries. Journal of Social Policy. 2017;46(3):495-516.
9 Urban-Pratt 2021 - Pratt E, Hahn H. Promising innovations and pilots in the child support field. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2021.
10 Aspen-Child support 2020 - The Aspen Institute, Good+Foundation. Paying support to families: Child support policy fact sheet. September 2020.
11 Vogel 2020* - Vogel LK. Barriers to meeting formal child support obligations: Noncustodial father perspectives. Children and Youth Services Review. 2020;110:104764.
12 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.
13 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.
14 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.
15 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.
16 Urban-Wheaton 2008 - Wheaton L, Sorensen E. The potential impact of increasing child support payments to TANF families. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2008.
17 Urban-Minton 2019 - Minton S, Giannarelli L, Werner K, Tran V. Reducing child poverty in the US: An updated analysis of policies proposed by the children’s defense fund. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2019.
18 NSCL-Child support - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Child support pass-through and disregard policies for public assistance recipients. May 2020.
19 OPRE-Dehry 2022 - Dehry I, Knowles S, Shantz K, Minton S, Giannarelli L. Welfare rules databook: State TANF policies as of July 2020. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE), Administration for Children and Families (ACF), US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS); 2022.
20 CBPP-Azevedo-McCaffrey 2022 - Azevedo-McCaffrey D. States should take steps needed to direct child support payments deducted from tax refunds to children: Payments should go to the children they’re intended for. Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP); 2022.
21 CBPP-Floyd 2021 - Floyd I, Pavetti L, Meyer L, et al. TANF policies reflect racist legacy of cash assistance: Reimagined program should center Black mothers. Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP); 2021.
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