A Ph.D. student at Hamline University wants to look into how Minnesota families that are a part of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and child support programs can be impacted by regulations.

Shaneen Moore chose to research this topic because she had personal experience with these systems – and has knowledge of the various policies. Moore is also the deputy assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services Children and Family Services. And she remembers the way the policies affected her as a single parent.

“We often leave out the voices of those that experienced these programs,” Moore said. “I’m hoping that my research will uplift the importance of understanding lived experience when developing a new policy, pushing initiatives forward and taking those things into consideration.”

Her dissertation will explore the impact of systemic racism and color-blind public policy when administering safety net programs to families.

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There have been two studies, one in Wisconsin and one in Louisiana that looked at racial disparities in enforcement within child support programs. Both studies did not find evidence that enforcement varied based on race. But that’s also not to say that people of color are not disproportionately impacted by the policies in place.

It’s never been looked into in Minnesota.

“There are some observational studies where there’s just a lot of Black men in the courtroom because the child support program, as a whole … looks like the population of custodial families,” said Vicki Turetsky, who served as commissioner for the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement for eight years under the Obama administration. “How does race play into this? Are there other racial inequities? The story is complicated and somewhat unknown. There’s very limited research nationally on whether there are racial disparities in the child support program.”

History of child support programs in Minnesota

In 1996, long-standing federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program ended and states were encouraged to create their own. Minnesota experimented with a pilot program called the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), which was fairly progressive, said Anita Larson, who was a welfare worker in the late 1980s in Hennepin County.

A study on the pilot program found that it was successful and had positive results for single parent long-term welfare recipients by increasing work and earnings and reducing the use of welfare as a sole income source, reducing poverty, domestic abuse and children’s behavior problems while improving their school performance. It also found that the pilot program produced a modest increase in marriage among single parents and a substantial increase in marital stability among two-parent families.

The program also would send child support money to the families who were receiving the assistance, instead of going to sustain the programming, as it was previously set up. But the pilot program was more costly. In 1998, it was replaced by MFIP, with key differences from the pilot being a lower exit level, food stamps no longer “cashing out” and parents being required to work with an employment counselor from the start. It also included a five year-limit.

“That form of MFIP had many more benefits and disregards than the MFIP we implemented officially,” Larson said. “There was this wonderful national reputation we had for having this very progressive MFIP that we’d piloted, but it didn’t look that way once we were finished with the pilot. It changed. It became about as restrictive as all the other states’ MFIP programs.”

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An area where Turetsky says Minnesota is progressive in is that child support to the non-custodial parent does not count as “earned income” when determining other benefits for the parent (known as disregarding the income). She said that Minnesota’s policies historically have been high performing nationally in terms of collection rates and order establishment rates.

In 2001, Minnesota policy began to pass through 100% of current monthly support to families receiving TANF.  In 2015, the state began to disregard the first $100 of passed through support for one child and $200 for two or more children from TANF. In 2023, Minnesota amended its child support guidelines to lower support order amounts for the lowest income noncustodial parents, after taking into account the income of the custodial parents and children.

Increasingly across the nation, there is intent to pay 100% of the child support to families and not keeping it as cost recovery to help with the programs, Turetsky said. Wisconsin, for example, passed through 75% of all forms of support – giving the majority of the payments to the families while also disregarding it as income. Illinois and California have passed legislation to implement 100% of family distribution.

“That’s really where the future of where this particular policy is going with more and more states, expanding the amount of dollars that it is passing through to families,” Turetsky said.

And these policies are affecting Black people.

“I’ve seen the program go through different stages and different philosophies and different initiatives. Like any other area, like criminal justice, for example, there was a time when ‘Get tough on crime’ was the mantra and within child support at that same time, ‘get tough on deadbeat dads.’ Just as criminal justice, language and emphasis and goals and strategies have evolved, so too in the child support program … Both the people participating in the child support program and the understanding about who’s participating in the child support program have evolved. The understanding about ability to pay has evolved and the income levels of parents has evolved,” Turetsky said. “We’re at a point now when the racial implications of all of that are coming to the forefront.”

Faults in the system

Moore was a single mother who navigated these systems in the early 1990s.

“I remember being a young single mom. I had both of my kids before the age of 21. I still pursued my education. I remember the experiences of being inundated with requests for multiple pieces of paperwork and countless asks for re-certifications and multiple requests for appointments all of those things in order to remain eligible for benefits and I’m like ‘Man, these are a lot of hurdles to have to go through,’ but I did it because I felt like I needed to do … I also remember some of the bias and assumptions that people were making about my situation without knowing me or why the need was there,” Moore said. “That’s the kind of thing sticks with you.”

Turetsky has worked to create recommendations for states to build family centered child support. Those recommendations, which came through different forms of research, include changing family distribution (giving all the money to the families), setting realistic child support orders and policies centered on preventing late payments and reducing the debts someone might owe.

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“Family centered child support is really a framework that has state child support agencies looking at the whole family, looking at family relationships, and focusing on the best interests of the child in a way that is fair and equitable and really focused on strengthening family relationships,” Turetsky said. “It’s the idea that child support is about money, but it’s about more than money. It’s also about the relationships in the family. And that child support can help support the family relationships, or it can through to his policies actually erode family relationships, create barriers and families.”

Turetsky said most states have embraced this framework, replacing the older view of child support that was focused on collecting debts, and interacted less with families. But remnants from those policies seep into the experience of people in these systems.

“That was a time in welfare reform policy where it became more punitive to individuals if you did not do ‘A’ then a result of that was ‘B.’ I was coming out of the system during that time, but at the same time, I still remember some of those punitive measures that were coming into play,” Moore said. “If you are someone, in particular, a mom, and you are receiving cash assistance, you are required to cooperate with child support in order to receive those benefits. If you do not cooperate then you could be sanctioned to the point where your cash assistance is cut significantly. It’s those types of policy decisions that were made that have created harm and barriers.”

Moore recalled barriers in the program like needing to locate the other parent, or the system putting a stressor on that other parent, resulting in a cycle of conflict.

“When I’m looking at a family unit, (say) you’ve got a mom who is receiving MFIP or TANF, who’s being asked to cooperate because she’s receiving that benefit. You’ve got a dad then who because she’s having to cooperate then is having to pay child support, and he may or may not be having his own set of barriers and is not able to pay. If he’s not able to pay because of his own barriers, then we have what we call our enforcement remedies. So there are things such as driver’s license suspension, you could have your passport revoked, you could be held for contempt and put in jail,” Moore said. “When you put those two things together, it’s creating this cyclical situation where in many instances, neither parent is getting ahead and it’s causing ongoing conflict and contention amongst that parenting group.”

In 2016, many of the federal rules regarding family centered child support were implemented in Minnesota. Not having these policies, like setting realistic child support order amounts, can discourage a stable flow of money for the family.

“(Realistic orders) increases the chances that money will come in regularly and stably for families trying to support their kids, so you can count on it in your family budget. And secondly, it prevents buildup of unmanageable debt. Debt that you can’t pay it all off. You get overwhelmed. You can imagine having a $25,000 debt as a low income noncustodial parent who’s not stably employed. How do you even tackle that? You don’t. You ignore it, you run away you hide. You stay out of that formal economy. You don’t take regular jobs anymore because your check will be taken for child support. That’s what happens and that’s what the research says happens,” Turetsky said.

And that can do more harm than good for families.

“It erodes family relationships. Conflict increases between the parents, if one isn’t paying. In some cases noncustodial parents are sort of precluded from seeing their kids or they themselves may just remove themselves from the scene because they’re ashamed, because they’re angry, because they’re not getting along with the custodial parent. Their relationship with their child deteriorates as a result,” Turetsky said.

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Turetsky said that Minnesota’s policies are generally oriented towards the custodial parent, and have had high collection rates historically.

“I say this from personal knowledge of being there. It also has this sort of vein of strictness,” Turetsky said. “Orders in Minnesota are somewhat on the high side, or they were historically. It’s a state with a strong judiciary. The state, as a matter of policy, historically has been quite oriented towards custodial parents but also has a history in treating noncustodial parents as deadbeat dads. That has changed a lot in the last 10 years, but I would say that there’s a little bit of that flavor in the Minnesota system of stricter enforcement.”

What could Moore’s research achieve? 

Turetsky said there’s limited data on how the child support program affects families, particularly Black families.

“That’s why the research is so important to look at what’s actually happening,” she said. “We need more clarity about how child support policies are impacting families in the child support caseload in terms of racial disparities. Are there racial disparities and what are they?”

One area where Moore and Larson see how these programs interact with Black families is through the stereotypes.

“I had it in my face every day who my clients were. I would always have a reaction to the national narrative about ‘welfare queens,’ Black women having many children. It just wasn’t what I saw. And so many of my clients were white. I had a hard time with it. I always had a hard time with it because it wasn’t what I saw. And I didn’t see enormous families. And I didn’t see failure to work,” Larson said.

Larson, who is on Moore’s dissertation committee, hopes Moore’s research could inform agencies on how their services and a client’s ability to be successful are impacted by those deeper embedded stereotypes.

Moore’s proposal is for qualitative and quantitative research, as she wants to speak with clients about how they’ve been treated by agencies – and how those myths and stereotypes have impacted their ability to receive services.

“Oftentimes, races is seen as an ‘other,’ and not the reason for why people are not advancing or people are not able to self-sustain and move beyond what their experiences are,” Moore said. “Why is that particularly of interest for me? Because we know here in Minnesota we have some of the worst racial disparities in the country, so it is important if we’re going to change that perspective and that narrative and move people beyond those experiences we have to do more.”