Cutting child support, even by $2 a month, surprises single parents

July 28, 2008

Rebecca Kennedy, a divorced mother of two, is one of 157,000 Pennsylvanians whose child support payments will be cut $25 annually, starting today, as part of little-noticed changes to federal and state law.

The new fee breaks down to only $2.08 per month from her child support checks, so it is not the cost that unsettles her, but rather the surprise. Like many others, she did not know about it until last week, and was shocked the money will be taken from payments for children, instead of charging absent parents the extra $25 fee.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” said Ms. Kennedy, a legal secretary from Cranberry. “I really feel my hands are tied and there’s nothing I can do. The government passes these bills and doesn’t let you know about them beforehand. Afterwards they always say, ‘Oh well, too bad.’ ”

President Bush pushed a bill through Congress called the Deficit Reduction Act in early 2006 that cut $40 billion in spending on a swath of entitlement programs over five years, including Medicaid, Medicare and child support enforcement. Vice President Dick Cheney cut short a winter vacation to break a 50-50 Senate tie on the bill and the House approved it by only two votes.

Western Pennsylvania legislators voted along party lines: GOP Reps. Phil English and Tim Murphy voted in favor. Democratic Reps. Mike Doyle and John Murtha voted against. Former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Rep. Melissa Hart, both Republicans, also voted in favor. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., voted in favor, too.

States were ordered to implement the changed child support fees last year, or remit the money from their own coffers. States such as Pennsylvania that needed to change state law were given until early this year to do it, so Gov. Ed Rendell signed the fees into law in May. The Senate approved the measure unanimously, but House Republicans put up a bit of a fight, saying the reduced payments would hurt low-income mothers. In the end, the House approved it 116-84.

For the Rendell administration, it was a budget matter: The fees will generate almost $4 million, with two-thirds going to the federal government. If they were not approved, the state would owe Washington $2.6 million.

The fee will be charged only after total child support payments reach $2,000 each year. Those receiving less than $2,000 yearly will not have to pay, and neither will those who have ever received welfare payments. The state’s Department of Public Welfare will start taking the $25 fee out of the court-ordered child support payments it oversees, starting today.

Like most states, Pennsylvania is taking the yearly payment fee from the “custodial” parent getting the payments, rather than the absent, or “non-custodial,” parent. That is because absent parents can be notoriously hard to find, and often go in and out of arrears in making any payments, let alone new $25 charges.

The state would be on the hook for the fees if the absent parent did not pay. Also, the state has an existing computerized distribution system for the checks that makes accounting with the custodial parent easier.

The state does not take the extra fees for parents lightly, said Linda Blanchette, the deputy secretary at the DPW’s office of income maintenance.

“We’re always concerned about any additional cost to low-income families. Yet, if you look at it as $25 over a 12 month period, that’s a little more than $2 a month. Any additional burden is always a concern, but $2 a month is probably not as much of a burden,” she said.

The state has mailed explanations of the fee to families and posted information in county courthouses statewide.

The fees will be assessed once per year, whenever payments reach $2,000. They will not be collected in December, January or February, during holiday and high-heating-cost periods.

The fee will apply to each child support case. If a parent gets child support from two different sources — perhaps for children from two ex-spouses — the fee will be charged twice.

While $2 monthly is not that much, Ms. Kennedy noted, it is coming at the same time that eggs have reached $2 a dozen and milk $4 a gallon. That Uncle Sam is forcing single moms such as herself to pay that instead of, in many cases, tracking down an absentee father, made her angry.

“The government has no trouble locating someone who is not paying income tax,” she said.