International history of child support
History of child support across the world
History of child support in the UK
History of child support in the USA
History of child support in some mainly-English-speaking countries
History of child support in some (non-UK) European countries
Comparisons across some mainly-English-speaking countries
Comparisons across some European countries
Child support systems across the world
Reciprocal arrangements with other countries
The cost of children in other nations
Can Child Support Agencies ever work?
Home & weblog
Blog archive & site history
Site map & search

History of child support in the USA

This page is being evolved as part of a long-term project. I ask anyone with useful material to get in touch at: history@childsupportanalysis.co.uk .

Summary

This history appears at first to have been similar to early English history of child support. In the latter case, communities (parishes) rescued destitute people, including lone mothers and children, often by putting them to work, and then attempted to recoup their costs from relatives such as fathers. The money was limited to amounts needed to avoid destitution, and was claimed by the community, not by individuals such as the lone mother or personal helpers of the lone mother.

Later, the systems diverged. The English (then the UK) child support approaches became an addition to "the welfare state". The National Assistance Act 1948 saw the state implicitly taking on some of the responsibilities that would once have been between local communities and relatives.The state (taxpayers!) eventually provided universal family allowances (called "Child Benefit" for the last decades). Most other "Western" countries had something similar. Nations with somewhat socialist tendencies such as Denmark were able to have much milder child support systems. Such universal benefits lessened or delayed the need for aggressive child support, such as enacting criminal offences.

In contrast, the USA developed more aggressive child support obligations during the 19th Century, with criminal law being enacted for the "affront" of fathers causing mothers and their children to become a burden on the community. That perhaps reduced the motivation for such universal family allowances. While there were federal initiatives such as AFDC for poorer children, there was little for better off lone parents and their children. In the late 20th Century, AFDC was replaced with TANF (T = temporary), and this will make timely child support even more imperative in the USA. Child support is typically an anti-socialist measure, aimed at reducing welfare spending, and the USA has looked to it to assist with its anti-socialist / anti-welfare policies such as TANF. However, it is probably not (yet?) effective enough for the purpose. GAO.

Caution: the states of the USA differ from one-another in their child support laws, and in the way they implement those laws. The "Uniform Acts" were drafted by the Uniform Law Commissioners to promote uniformity in state law on all subjects where uniformity is desirable and practicable, but some have only had limited take-up. So some statements below may be over-generalisations.

When? What? Information
Pre-19th Century The poor laws
from 1601
The earliest history of child support in the USA came from the inheritance of the English poor laws. These laws were intended to allow parishes (local communities) to recover their costs of keeping people out of destitution from the relatives of those people. The laws didn't allow those people themselves (or other people) to claim from their relatives.
See: History of child support in the UK
Pre-1776 Child support in the 13 colonies "Child support law existed in the thirteen colonies and has existed in the states since the beginning of the nation's history". Gay.
See below:
about 1800
to 1880
Development of civil law for child support See Hansen.
At first, courts developed civil law for child support. This especially enabled communities that kept lone mothers and children out of destitution to claim from the fathers. (This was similar in principle to the poor laws, but intended to be clearer and more effective).
1808 Stanton v. Willson
Connecticut

"American courts in the nineteenth century addressed the problem of dependency among single mothers and their children by creating a legally enforceable child support duty.... One reason for the divergent fortunes of men and women after a divorce was that the transformations in the American conception of children from wage earners to dependents who needed constant nurturing and the trend toward maternal preference in custody decisions combined to require divorced women to bear the burden of raising children who did not work.... American courts in the nineteenth century invented a parental child support obligation in the context of increasing concerns about dependency among single mothers.... When single motherhood began to emerge in nineteenth-century America, the judiciary was the only institution of the American state that could deal with dependency among single mothers and their children: The poor laws were being overwhelmed by population growth and urbanization, and private charities and state poor-relief agencies had not yet appeared. The first child support statutes built on this judicial innovation, codifying a child support system that relied primarily on payments from absent parents, instead of on public supports for families." Hansen.

1816 Van Valkinburgh v. Watson
New York
1858 Tomkins v. Tomkins
New Jersey

See below:
about 1870 onward

Development of criminal law for failing to support children See Hansen.
Now states started to pass laws against desertion and nonsupport. It started to become a criminal offence, with punishments including prison. Also, gradually it became possible for individuals, such as lone mthers, to claim child support.
By 1886 (Compilation of statutes) By 1886, 11 states had made it a penal offence for a father to abandon or refuse to support his minor children. Typically, it still needed evidence that without this support the children would be a cost to the community. Hansen.
1884 New Jersey statute Examples of states taking action because fathers were criminally responsible for allowing children to become a public charge. The New York statute punished nonsupporting fathers with imprisonment and hard labour. Hansen.
1897 Bowen v. State
Ohio
1903 State v. Peabody
Rhode Island
1st half of 20th Century   The court system continued to operate. The number of separated families continued to rise. 46 states had laws criminalising desertion and non-support.
1935

Social Security Act of 1935 (Public Law 74-271)

This included Aid for Dependent Children. ADC (later AFDC; F = Families) established a partnership between the federal government and the states by providing appropriations to those states which adopted plans approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The states in turn provided a minimum monthly subsistence payment to families meeting established need requirements (such as an absent parent not providing support). This later gradually drove child support enforcement, in order to reduce expenditure on AFDC (see events below).
"Care for children" becomes one of the few entitlements for welfare. Compared with other countries, this tends to make "child support by parents" a prominent objective.

World War 2
2nd half of 20th Century and onwards USA becomes unique in not having state-provided universal family allowances "In most industrialized nations, private child support payments are not a central way in which the community makes sure that children are adequately supported. Instead, most industrialized nations have some kind of child allowances financed by the public or by employers that go to all families. In England, for instance, families receive a universal "Child Benefit" to defray the costs of raising children; and all single-parent families receive an additional "One Parent Benefit". But although the United States has generous, publicly funded benefits such as Social Security and Medicare for elderly Americans, no comparable program exists for children.... A privatized child support system might have been a background factor that lessened the pressure for family allowances in early-twentieth-century America." Hansen.
1948 The Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (UEFJA) Some limited applicability to child support, and largely replaced by the 1964 version.
1950 Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (URESA)

This act has been enacted in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
The purpose of URESA was to provide a system for the interstate enforcement of support orders without requiring the person seeking support to go (or have her legal representative go) to the State in which the noncustodial parent resided. Where the URESA provisions between the two States are compatible, the law can be used to establish paternity, locate an absent parent, and establish, modify, or enforce a support order across State lines.

1950 Social Security Act Amendments of 1950 (Public Law 81-734) The law required state welfare agencies to notify law enforcement officials when providing AFDC to a child. (Presumably, local officials would then undertake to locate nonresident parents and make them pay child support).
The Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (URESA) was approved. (See above).
1952 Amendment to URESA 1950  
1958 Amendment to URESA 1950  
1964 The Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (UEFJA) Implemented by most states and DC. Some relevance to child support orders.
1965 Social Security Amendments of 1965 (Public Law 89-97) Allowed welfare agencies to obtain addresses and employers of obligated parents from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
1967 Social Security Amendments of 1967 (Public Law 90-248) Allowed states access to IRS for addresses of obligated parents. Each state was required to establish a single child support unit for AFDC children.
States were required to work cooperatively.
1968 Revision to URESA (RURESA) 1950 (Revised Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act).
1973 Uniform Parentage Act 1973 Rules for the presumption of parentage, etc. Only adopted by a minority of states. Should be replaced by the 2000 Act.
1974 - 1975

Social Security Amendments of 1974 (Public Law 93-647)

(Child Support and Establishment of Paternity Program)

A response by Congress to reduce public expenditures on welfare by obtaining support from noncustodial parents on an ongoing basis, to help non-AFDC families get support so they could stay off public assistance, and to establish paternity for children born outside marriage so child support could be obtained for them. Mandated that the State plan for child support require States to cooperate with other States in establishing paternity, locating absent parents, and securing compliance with court orders.

Created (commencing January 1975) Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, the child support program. The program was designed for cost recovery of state and federal outlays on public assistance and for cost avoidance to help families leave welfare and to help families avoid turning to public assistance. This statute, as amended, authorizes Federal matching funds to be used for enforcing support obligations by locating nonresident parents, establishing paternity, establishing child support awards, and collecting child support payments. This established the basis of the CSES. It required every State to establish a child support enforcement system. States had to establish special agencies for the collection of child support payments due to recipients of AFDC who were required to sign over to the state claims to child support as a condition of eligibility. States were required to offer similar services to non-AFDC cases if requested.

1976 (Public Law 94-566) Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions: Requires that upon request of a public agency administering or supervising the administration of a State plan approved under title IV (Grants to States for Aid and Services to Needy Families with Children) of the Social Security Act, shall furnish to such agency making the request, information with respect to unemployment compensation, and refusal by an individual to accept employment. (Required state employment agencies to provide addresses of obligated parents to state child support agencies).
1977 (Public Law 95-30) Amended section 454 of the Social Security Act relating to the garnishment of a federal employee’s wages for child support.
1980 Social Security Disability Amendments of 1980
(Public Law 86-265)
Provided state and local child support agencies access to wage information held by the Social Security Administration and state employment agencies for establishing and enforcing child support obligations.
1981 Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981 (Public Law 97-35) 1) IRS was authorized to withhold tax refunds for delinquent child support;
2) IV-D agencies were required to collect spousal support for AFDC families;
3) IV-D agencies were required to collect fees from parents delinquent in child support;
4) obligations assigned to the state were no longer dischargeable in bankruptcy proceedings; and
5) states were required to withhold a portion of unemployment for delinquent support
1984

Child Support Amendments of 1984 (Public Law 98-378)

(Mandated guidelines to be used in an advisory capacity).

Section 3 of the 1984 Child Support Enforcement Amendments required every State’s child support enforcement agency to establish procedures for automatically withholding income from the pay and tax refunds of absentee parents, whenever their child support payments fell into arrears of over one month, without having to request court intervention. It also required States to establish procedures imposing: "lines against real and personal property for the amount of overdue support ... [and] Permitted states to extend withholding to income other then wages, such as bonuses and commissions, or dividends."
Additionally, Sections 15 and 18 required States to establish a committee responsible for formulating child support award guidelines. Once established these were to be provided to: "all judges and other officials who have the power to determine child support awards within such State, but need not be binding".
Required States to limit the role of the courts significantly by implementing administrative or judicial expedited processes. States are required to have quasi-judicial or administrative systems to expedite the process for obtaining and enforcing a support order.
1986 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 (Public Law 99-509) Required States to treat past due support obligations as final judgments entitled to full faith and credit in every State. Thus, a person who has a support order in one State does not have to obtain a second order in another State to obtain the money due should the debtor parent move from the issuing court's jurisdiction. The second State can modify the order prospectively if it finds that circumstances exist to justify a change, but the second State may not retroactively modify a child support order.
1987 Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act 1987 (Adopted by a minority of states). Requires that child support be based in part on the financial resources of both parents and in part on the standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the marriage not been dissolved.
1987 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987 (Public Law 100-203) Required states to provide services to families with an absent parent who receives Medicaid and have them assign their support rights to the state.
1988 1988 Family Support Act (Public Law 100-485) Title I of the 1988 FSA implemented a national Child Support Enforcement System based upon the uniform application of a State-developed formula to ensure absent parents were held responsible for maintaining their children. Section 101 requires every State to implement various procedures for immediate and mandatory wage-withholding for all support orders being enforced by the State’s CSEA.
This law required the appointment of an Assistant Secretary for Family Support within DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) to administer the Child Support Enforcement Program.
Mandated that by 1994, states implement presumptive, rather than advisory, guidelines.
Enacted "immediate" wage withholding.
1990 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act 1990 (Public Law 101-508) Permanently extended the federal provision that allows states to ask the Internal Revenue Service to deduct child support arrears of at least US$500 from tax refunds to non-custodial parents.
1992 Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 (Public Law 102-521) Imposed a Federal criminal penalty for the willful failure to pay a past due child support obligation to a child who resides in another State and that has remained unpaid for longer than a year or is greater than $5,000. For the first conviction, the penalty is a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment for not more than 6 months, or both; for a second conviction, the penalty is a fine of not more than $250,000, imprisonment for up to 2 years, or both.
1992 Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) It is designed to deal with desertion and nonsupport by instituting uniform laws in all 50 States and the District of Columbia. The core of UIFSA is limiting control of a child support case to a single State, thereby ensuring that only one child support order from one court or child support agency is in effect at any given time.
1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (Public Law 103-66) Required states to establish paternity on 75 percent of the children in their caseload instead of 50 percent. States had to adopt civil procedures for voluntary acknowledgement of paternity.
The law also required states to adopt laws to ensure the medical compliance in orders.
1994 Bankruptcy Reform Act 1994 (Public Law 103-394) Protected child support from being discharged in bankruptcy. It also provided protection against trustee avoidance, facilitates access to bankruptcy proceedings, and assigns child support a priority for collecting claims from debtors.
1994 Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act of 1994 (Public Law 103-383) This is binding in all the states and supercedes any inconsistent provisions of state law. It restricts a State court's ability to modify a child support order issued by another State unless the child and the custodial parent have moved to the State where the modification is sought or have agreed to the modification.
1994 Work and Responsibility Act of 1994 Included assisting states with child support enforcement.
1994 Small Business Administration Amendments of 1994 (Public Law 103-403) Renders delinquent child support payers ineligible for small business loans.
1994 Social Security Act Amendments of 1994 (Public Law 103-432) Requires states to periodically report debtor parents to consumer reporting agencies.
1996

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 (Public Law 104-193)

(Welfare reform law)

Under the new law, each State must operate a CSE Program meeting Federal requirements in order to be eligible for TANF funds (which replaced AFDC). This law made about 50 changes to the CSE Program, many of them major. These changes included requiring States to increase the percentage of fathers identified, establishing an integrated, automated network linking all States to information about the location and assets of parents, requiring States to implement more enforcement techniques, and revising the rules governing the distribution of past due (arrearage) child support payments to former recipients of public assistance.
Under the new law, states can implement tough child support enforcement techniques such as withholding wages, seizing assets, and revoking driving and professional licences of those parents who owe child support.
Set aside 1 percent of the Federal share of retained child support collections for information dissemination and technical assistance to States (including technical assistance related to automated systems), training of State and Federal staff, staffing studies, and related activities needed to improve the CSE Program, and research, demonstration, and special projects of regional or national significance relating to the operation of the CSE Program. An additional 2 percent of the Federal share of retained child support collections is set aside for the operation of the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS). Expanded the scope of the FPLS to allow certain noncustodial parents to obtain information regarding the location of the custodial parent.
Streamlines the paternity determination process.
Required all States to enact UIFSA (see below), including all amendments, before January 1, 1998
Increased its access to information and maintaining its effort to automate caseload processing. The legislation mandated that states require employers to report all new hires within 20 days to child support enforcement authorities. This new requirement was expected to reduce the delay in establishing immediate wage withholding.
PRWORA also eliminated the federal requirement that states pass through the first $50 of child support paid to welfare families.
1996 Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) (1996) The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act ("UIFSA") was drafted to more efficiently enforce the child and spousal support orders as well as paternity judgments of other states and countries. The prerequisite to enforce another country's orders under UIFSA is that the country of origin must have a "law or procedure substantially similar to UIFSA's, or one of UIFSA's precursors -- the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act ("URESA") and the Revised Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act ("RURESA").
1997 Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (Public Law 105-33) Allows FPLS (Federal Parent Locator Service) information to be disclosed to noncustodial parents except in cases where there is evidence of domestic violence or child abuse and the local court determines that disclosure may result in harm to the custodial parent or child.
1998 Child Support Performance and Incentive Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-200) Provides penalties for failure to meet data processing requirements, reforms incentive payments, and provides penalties for violating inter-jurisdictional adoption requirements. Incentive payments are based on paternityestablishment, order establishment, current support collected, cases paying past due support, and cost effectiveness and on a percentage of collections. Incentive payments must be reinvested in the state's child support program.
1998 Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-187) The law establishes two new categories of felony offenses, subject to a 2-year maximum prison term. The offenses are:
(1) traveling in interstate or foreign commerce with the intent to evade a support obligation if the obligation has remained unpaid for more than 1 year or is greater than $5,000; and
(2) willfully failing to pay a child support obligation regarding a child residing in another State if the obligation has remained unpaid for more than 2 years or is greater than $10,000.
2000 Uniform Parentage Act 2000 This has been drafted in the hope that states will enact it and become more uniform in their approach to parentage, and especially paternity. Among other things, it emphasises genetic testing, but also recognises the strength of acknowledgement of paternity. Morgan.
2002-12-12 Australia and the United States entered into a treaty for reciprocal recognition and enforcement of child support maintenance arrangements. This new treaty allows administrative assessments made under the Australian Child Support Scheme to be recognised and enforced in the United States. Another feature of the treaty is that each country will have a central authority which will take responsibility for coordinating all agencies involved in a case. In Australia's case, that central authority will be the Child Support Registrar.
Present day
The following is provided to show just how resistant the USA is towards adopting international treaties and conventions relating in some way to child support. The USA continues to pursue its own approach towards the common objectives of reducing child poverty and reducing welfare spending. (Part of this may be because states, rather than the federal government, have historically had the jurisdiction for family matters).
2002? United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

Being considered by Congress.

(In fact, this has little to do with child support).

Not under active consideration for ratification. United Nations Convention on the Recovery Abroad of Maintenance (Is this what the State Department calls "United Nations Convention on International Family Support (1956)"? I suspect it is).
Not ratified. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (May 2002): The most significant contradiction between the convention and U.S. law and practice is in relation to the death penalty. The Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits the use of the death penalty for offenses committed before the age of eighteen. However, twenty-two U.S. states allow executions of juvenile offenders, and currently there are eighty-two juvenile offenders on death row in the United States. In the last five years, nine executions of juvenile offenders were carried out in the United States, and two more are scheduled in the next month. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran are the only other states to have carried out such executions in the last three years.
Not under active consideration for ratification. The following Hague Conventions:

#8 on the law applicable to maintenance obligations towards children
#9 concerning the recognition and enforcement of decisions relating to maintenance obligations towards children
#23 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Decisions Relating to Maintenance Obligations
#24 on the Law Applicable to Maintenance Obligations

References

Hansen: "The American invention of child support: dependency and punishment in early American child support law".
Yale Law Journal, Hansen, Drew D. 1999 (March)

Morgan: Child Support Guidelines: Interpretation and Application
Laura W. Morgan

Ways & Means: The 2000 House Ways and Means
Green Book, "Child Support Enforcement Program"

Washington State: Washington State, Department of Social and Health Services
Child Support Federal Legislative History

GAO: Child Support - an uncertain income supplement for families leaving welfare (US)
GAO/HEHS-98-168 Child Support and Time-Limited Welfare, August 1998
United States General Accounting Office

Gay: A Return to Welfare As We Knew It? The beginning of the end of child support reform

WELCOME TO VIRGINIA
Two Hundred Years of History, Unimpeded by Progress

Page last updated: 18 December, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003