By Vicki Turetsky, Commissioner, Office of Child Support Enforcement
For poor families in America, 1964 was a defining year because it set the stage for many of the social safety net programs we have today, including the child support program. While our program was not enacted for another decade, its establishment was part of the broader agenda to alleviate poverty in America.
In 1960, 27 percent of all children and 67 percent of black children were living in poverty. When President John F. Kennedy died in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson inherited a nation highly divided, with social programs that failed its poorest citizens. In his Jan. 8, 1964, State of the Union Address, President Johnson announced that his administration was declaring “a war on poverty in America,” and he urged Congress and the American public to join him in his effort. This became known as the War on Poverty.
During the speech, Johnson outlined his plan: “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.” Over the next several years, the president pushed through a variety of legislation that set out social services programs.
Two of those initial pieces of legislation that were important for child support were the August 1964 Economic Opportunity Act that created programs such as Head Start and the Food Stamp Act, which made the existing food stamp pilot program permanent, and the 1965 Amendments to the Social Security Act, which brought health care to millions because it gave us the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
Other major anti-poverty programs followed in the 1970s, including the Supplemental Security Income program (established in 1972) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (established in 1975). Both of these programs are now considered key elements of our social safety net, lifting millions of people out of poverty.
The child support program was part of the 1970s wave of anti-poverty programs. Enacted in 1975, our program has grown dramatically. In fiscal year 2012, we delivered about $26 billion in child support to families in the program and another $4 billion to families outside of it. That year, child support lifted nearly one million people out of poverty. Today, we serve 1 in 4 children and 1 in 2 poor children in the United States, three territories, and many Native American tribes.
Although the child support program is not means-tested like other social safety net programs, families served by the program tend to be poor or have relatively low incomes. A recent report shows that in 2009, 63 percent of the families in the child support program had incomes below 200 percent of the poverty threshold, and 89 percent had incomes below 400 percent of the poverty threshold (see the report on the OCSE website).
Moreover, families eligible for child support are often the same families helped by other social safety net programs. A new OCSE Story Behind the Numbers fact sheet shows that 4.2 million custodial families were poor in 2011. Nearly all of these families are headed by a female custodial parent. Many are young, never married, and a member of a minority. Most have two or more children eligible for child support. These families struggle to make ends meet.
When poor families receive child support, it represents a large percent of their income. In 2011, poor custodial families who received child support collected $4,503, on average, representing 52 percent of the average income of poor custodial parents. And these figures increased between 2009 and 2011. In 2009, poor custodial families who received child support got, on average $3,909, representing 45 percent of the average income of poor custodial parents.
As we move forward, the child support program will continue to play a key role in the War on Poverty, delivering child support to disadvantaged families in tough budgetary times. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, the Child Support Report will feature more articles this year that further highlight the role that child support plays in lifting people out of poverty.
Vicki Turetsky was appointed as the Commissioner for the Office of Child Support Enforcement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. As Commissioner, she oversees the child support program operated by each state and by many tribes.