WASHINGTON -- Total funds collected for U.S. child-support programs failed to increase during fiscal year 2009 for the first time since Congress created an enforcement arm for such collections in 1975, according to a study released this week by the Government Accountability Office.
Overall collections declined by 2.1 percent from the previous fiscal year, including the first-ever drop in collections automatically withheld from wages, long the primary source of child-support payments. The enforcement program, administered at the state level and overseen by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, collected about $26 billion in child support payments during fiscal 2009 on behalf of some 17 million children, almost one-quarter of the nation's kids. The average amount of child support collected per case dropped 3 percent to $1,670, the first decline since 1994.
The amount of child-support funding collected from unemployment checks, however, nearly tripled during fiscal 2009. It's a measure of the depths of the recession, but also of how much deeper it could have been, analysts say, without government efforts to mitigate the economic crisis.
"I think it's clear that the decline in collections isn't due to a failing on the part of child-support enforcement administrators, but due to the economy," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group for lower-income Americans. "It would have been a bigger drop without the extended unemployment insurance benefits, which helped many noncustodial parents meet their obligations."
Nearly 9.3 million Americans are currently receiving either state or federal unemployment checks as of this week, according to the Labor Department. Federal extensions of jobless benefits can provide up to 73 weeks of aid beyond the standard 26 weeks provided by states.
The federal government spent $120 billion on unemployment benefits in 2009, and almost half of all families with one unemployed member received benefits that year, with the aid providing for an average boost of $6,000 to each family's income.
That spending prevented a record surge in the poverty rate last year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
States use several enforcement tools to ensure that noncustodial parents continue to provide financial support for their children, including withholding collections automatically from the parent's wages, unemployment benefits and state and federal tax refunds, depending on the situation.