The United States Department of Agriculture has asked states to start enforcing a punitive measure that experts believe would result in more low-income families going without food assistance. In a memorandum sent on Wednesday, officials urged regional directors to disqualify parents who fail to pay child support from participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The Trump administration argues this policy would force non-compliant parents to cooperate with child support agencies. But it would also risk denying benefits to some of the 18 million low-income children who receive SNAP benefits every month, many of whom live in households in the child support program.
"We want states to take action to ensure that SNAP and child support work together to help children," Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement on Wednesday. "Increasing the number of states that implement child support cooperation requirements will benefit families, help non-custodial parents assume responsibility for the well-being and stability of their children, and provide more children with the support they deserve."
Experts and advocates say this strategy is not only ineffective, but its logic is deeply flawed. Research shows most SNAP non-custodial parents who fail to pay their child support do so not because they're irresponsible, but because they can't pay—the same reason they need SNAP to help pay for groceries in the first place.
Moreover, the policy addresses a problem that many researchers say is simply not there: A 2014 study of Utah's program found that almost 70 percent of SNAP parents are already paying child support or have a child support court order in effect. Those who didn't cited reasons other than the non-custodial parent's refusal, such as the risk of domestic violence or informal agreements between parents.
According to analysis from the progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the average SNAP household receiving child support gets about $340 a month from the non-custodial parent, but many supplement this income with other forms of assistance: buying diapers or clothes, caring for children.
States already have the option to disqualify SNAP recipients who do not cooperate with child support, but few of them use it. As of last year, six states enforced the requirement, and seven had rescinded it, citing the policy's ineffectiveness and administrative burden. On top of the cost to individual SNAP recipients, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that implementing the disqualification nationwide would cost the state agencies $3.5 billion over 10 years—far exceeding that of any new child support payments.
For these reasons, the reform is unpopular among family health advocates: When legislators proposed adding a similar provision in the 2018 farm bill, the heads of the National Child Support Enforcement Association and the American Public Human Services Association opposed the policy.
"We have serious reservations about ... whether or not [this provision] would actually increase child support payments, and the fact that it almost certainly will result in otherwise eligible needy families losing SNAP benefits and jeopardizing their food security," APHSA's leadership team said in a letter to Congress last year.
And yet the policy has persisted under the Trump administration, which has emphasized the rhetoric of personal responsibility in a bid to decrease reliance on government programs. As with SNAP work requirements proposed last year, this change is part of an ongoing effort to push unemployed or non-compliant parents toward "self-sufficiency"—a strategy that's been heavily criticized.
If the government wants to improve the lives of families receiving child support, researchers argue, it shouldn't use food security as a cudgel. "It makes them even less capable of providing financial support to their children," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysts Elizabeth Wolkomir and Stacy Dean write, "no matter how much they may want to meet their obligations."