A provision in Senate Bill (SB) 65 would disqualify parents who are behind in making child support payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food assistance). Such a ban, which was temporarily in place from 2018 to 2020 in Kentucky, would be ineffective at significantly increasing child support payments. Instead, it would worsen food insecurity in the commonwealth, including for kids.
The Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) removed the previous SNAP ban in April of 2020 through an administrative regulation to ensure Kentuckians could get needed food during the pandemic, but also because it was administratively costly. SB 65 would make CHFS’s decision to remove the ban null and void and would prevent CHFS from promulgating any similar administrative regulations, regardless of the anticipated harmful consequences, from March 30, 2021, to June 1, 2022.
Because every other state recognizes these downsides, if Kentucky were to reinstate the SNAP disqualification, we would be the only state implementing a ban based on non-custodial parents’ inability to pay child support.
The ban previously took food assistance away from over 14,000 households
According to data from CHFS, between January 2019 and March 2020, 14,306 Kentuckians lost food assistance while the child support ban was in place. Of those, 30% were women and 70% were men. While the affected Kentuckians are called non-custodial parents (because the children for whom they owe child support don’t live with them most of the time), 72% have an average of 3 other people living with them in their household — including over 6,000 children — who then had less money available for groceries. When parents’ benefits are cut, it reduces the whole family’s food budget.
Taking SNAP from parents already struggling to make ends meet doesn’t just harm them and the family members who live with them, it could also reduce their ability to make child support payments for children not in their custody, too. Non-custodial parents — about a quarter of whom live in poverty nationally — struggle to make child support payments precisely because they are often low-wage earners, which is especially the case for those receiving SNAP. Cutting off food assistance further reduces the resources they have to make ends meet (as SNAP often helps to free up some household resources for needs other than food) and may even reduce informal or in-kind contributions (like diapers, clothes, school supplies or transportation) they make to custodial parents.
With one in four children facing food insecurity, Kentucky already has one of the highest child hunger rates in the nation. Food insecurity has significant short- and long-term health and economic consequences, particularly for young children. The child support ban puts already vulnerable families’ food security at risk.
SB65 is not likely to increase child support payments
On average, only about 20% of Kentucky parents who were disqualified from SNAP because of the child support ban either paid child support or set up a payment plan with Child Support Enforcement, according to CHFS. Research on the impact of child support disqualification shows that it does not produce the desired results and more households are kicked off SNAP than see an increase in child support payments. On net, these bans reduce, rather than increase economic security for Kentucky families and children. In fact, organizations that work closely with families report that child support disqualifications are complex and fluid, and often weaken child support efficiency.
Meanwhile, SNAP already incentivizes child support payments. When applying for SNAP, the state deducts child support payments from gross income in order to determine the net income of the applicant, which is the deciding factor in both eligibility and the amount of the benefit. This encourages non-custodial parents who owe child support to make and report payments so their family qualifies for more SNAP benefits.
Child support disqualification is administratively burdensome and costly
Disqualifications from SNAP create administrative costs for the state. The Division for Income Support must routinely gather data and send it to the Division for Family Services, which must then process data and implement findings, all in an accurate and timely fashion. SNAP is a 100% federally funded program, but administrative costs required to implement the disqualification regulation are only 50% paid for by the federal government with the state picking up the other half. Additionally the regulations can create bureaucratic errors that result in SNAP participants incorrectly having their benefits taken away. If those errors are large and persistent, they could result in federal financial penalties to the state.
According to the latest Census information, one in four Kentucky families have struggled to afford adequate food for their children in the pandemic. All families should have access to food assistance when they need it. And families that are already earning so little that they qualify for SNAP shouldn’t be threatened with losing food money because they have difficulty making child support payments through the child support program. Lawmakers should abandon this provision of SB 65 and find more effective ways of helping Kentuckians with low wages to meet their financial support obligations.