In summary

Here are three proposals for reform to ensure that every dollar parents pay in child support goes where it should – to children.

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By Anne Stuhldreher, Special to CalMatters

Anne Stuhldreher directs The Financial Justice Project in the treasurer’s office of the city and county of San Francisco and is a fellow with the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program,

It’s a minor miracle that anyone can live in San Francisco on a $900 a month Social Security check, but Freddie Persons – a 75-year-old retiree – has survived times with his belt far tighter.  

Until recently, the government automatically garnished $300 from his monthly check. When he worked as a janitor for 36 years at Bayview Plaza mall, they took nearly twice that, he said. 

OVERCHARGED takes an inside look at how unfair fines and fees criminalize poverty in California. The series tells the stories of people reeling from this approach of raising revenue and the activists fighting for reform.

“Everything is hard when they take that money when you’re already poor to begin with,” Persons said.  

The reason for those garnished wages? Decades ago, Persons fell behind on child support payments, incurring a crushing 10% interest penalty that wreaked havoc on his financial life for years. And yet, for all the tens of thousands of dollars he paid, only a small sliver of his payments actually went to his children and their mother.  

In California, when low-income parents – usually fathers – make monthly child support payments, only $50 goes to their own children. The rest goes to state, local and federal governments for the cost of safety-net programs used by the children and their mother, programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medi-Cal.  

That’s a hefty price tag for our safety net for low-income families. The result: Children in poverty miss out on money they badly need; fathers are denied a sense of personal involvement in helping their children; and if parents fall behind on child support payments, they face a series of severe punishments. 

They’re charged 10% interest, one of the highest rates on this government debt in the country; their driver’s licenses are suspended, which makes it hard to get or keep a job; up to 65% of their wages may be garnished; and their credit is usually ruined, which makes it very hard to rent an apartment, among other things.  

Like Persons, the majority of people who owe this debt struggle to pay it. And like Persons, who is African American, most are Black or Brown men earning under $20,000 a year. Small wonder, many turn to off-the-book jobs. One of Persons’ friends quit his job and started working for cash, Persons said. He got paid less but kept far more, so he had more money for his kids. 

There is a better way. In San Francisco, we used philanthropic dollars to partner with state and local child support departments to conduct an experiment to find out what would happen if we paid off the government debt for 32 fathers who still owed money to support their children. Our theory was that once we paid off the fathers’ debt, these men would make larger and more consistent child support payments, since they now knew all their money would go where it should – to their kids.  

That’s exactly what happened, according to a study by the Urban Institute. Fathers paid more and paid more often. Since the debt was paid off, they got their driver’s licenses back, which enabled many to find work. In focus groups, they frequently reported driving for Lyft or Uber. Their credit scores shot up, too.  Parents also reported that their relationships with their children and the mother improved.  

As of 2020, about 750 fathers in San Francisco, mostly Black and Brown men, still owe the debt despite, like Persons, having paid off their family obligation. They earn on average $10,000 a year, and what little they do earn continues to be garnished.  

Thankfully, legislators like state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, who chairs the Senate’s Budget and Fiscal Review committee, are calling for reform. And the California Child Support Services agency is exploring ways to get more money to children and ease the burden on low-income parents.  

When the budget of the state Child Support Services agency is reviewed at a March 17 Assembly budget hearing, community advocates – like the Truth and Justice in Child Support coalition – will call for three major reforms, all aimed at relieving parents of this onerous debt and ensuring that every dollar that parents pay in child support goes where it should, to children. 

No. 1: California should stop charging 10% interest on the government debt caused by missed payments. This rate – higher than in Mississippi and Texas – quickly inflates debt to levels that are nearly impossible to repay. In California, a parent with $15,000 in debt, the average amount owed, could pay $50 every two weeks for 30 years and they’d actually owe more than when they started, since the interest owed exceeds their annual payments. Someone making the same payments in 1 of the 15 states that charge no interest would have nearly paid off their debt in 12 years.   

No. 2: Stop squeezing low-income families for the debt and simply write it off. The state commissioned a study which found that 95% of this debt is very hard to collect, since it’s owed by people who have very low incomes, live out of state or have owed the debt for a long time. Struggling parents can put that money to better use supporting their families.  

No. 3: 100% of child-support payments should go to the payer’s family. When Colorado did this, parents’ payments shot up 65%, since they knew their money was going to their family and not into government coffers. That would mean more money going to low-income children. That’s a big deal in California with more children in poverty than any other state. 

The government squeezes nearly $400 million in these safety net payments every year out of hundreds of thousands struggling parents like Persons. It serves no one – least of all the children we’re trying to help. 

Every penny parents pay in child support should go to their children. California’s child support system is badly broken. And we know how to fix it. Anyone who cares about low-income families should support these reforms. 

Persons is hopeful for reform. “The devil doesn’t always win,” he said.


Contact Anne Stuhldreher at and follow her on Twitter @AnneStuhldreher.


First in the series Overcharged: Changing unfair fines and fees that can derail the lives of people who can’t afford to pay.

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