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Child Support in the Time of Coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much about daily life in the United States. As schools, businesses, and government offices closed their doors, almost nothing escaped serious disruption. Mission-critical government operations must somehow continue, and for a program like child support, the path forward is challenging and complicated.

Here are several of the factors complicating the child support situation right now:

Job loss or income reduction. In the past nine weeks, a record-breaking 38 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. Because more than 70 percent of child support payments are made by wage withholding, when a parent paying support loses employment, those payments go away. Parents who remit their own child support payments from non-employer income—self-employed individuals, gig economy workers, or those whose income doesn’t come in the form of wages—are also losing income, making those payments harder, sometimes even impossible, to remit.

Child support obligations don’t cease because someone loses a job or income. Parents paying support can seek a downward modification of their ordered amount based on a substantial change in their circumstances, such as COVID-related job or income loss. However, this can be challenging in the current situation because of another complicating factor.

Local child support office closures. Due to stay-at-home orders in place throughout the country, many state and county child support offices are closed to in-person visits or limiting office hours, creating additional challenges for parents to make important changes such as modifying their support orders. While child support workers in some localities have been deemed essential or otherwise directed to work from home, or services are being provided by phone or internet, departments are struggling to maintain services in the current environment. And parents who have generally met their child support obligations with walk-in payments can no longer use this service if their local child support office is closed to visitors.

Ripple effects for receiving families. Child support payments are often a substantial portion of a low-income family’s household income. When these payments dry up, it can pose a serious risk to the parent receiving support  and children. Families whose household income drops drastically may need to turn to other social services such as TANF and/or SNAP to cover household essentials.

Is there good news to offset the bad? There are at least temporary mitigating factors, such as  increased unemployment payments and stimulus checks provided by the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act). And for parents paying support who have the ability to meet their child support obligations and are only challenged by the logistics, partially or fully electronic payment options such as MoneyGram and ExpertPay help keep payments flowing.

No one knows what the next few months will bring. But we know how committed the leaders, managers and staff of the child support program are and how hard they work to serve the children and families who rely on their services. We’re working closely with our clients to keep child support operations functioning with minimal disruption during these challenging times. And we’re keeping the lines of communication open, connecting virtually whenever possible, for as long as stay-at-home orders remain in place—and beyond.