How Child Support Really Works in California

What—and who—do you think of when you hear the phrase “child support?” Is it so-called “deadbeat dads” who resist paying support to their families? Or do you imagine an essential system that helps keep children housed, clothed, fed, and ready for school?

The truth is that both of these visions of the practical effects of California’s child support system are based on misconceptions. The most common reality is quite different; 40% of child support payments in California instead go to pay off debt owed to the government.

California’s child support problem

Here’s the problem: state and federal laws require families that enroll in public benefits to sign their rights to their child support funds over to the government. These payments then “pay for” benefits that are already publicly funded. So, if you need child support and public benefits—as many child support recipients do; tough. The current system won’t allow you to receive Medi-Cal, CalWORKs, or other public support and child support payments to care for your own children at the same time.

The bulk of the money a parent sends to help cover the costs of raising their children—whether they send it willingly or under duress—doesn’t arrive. The family only receives the first $50 of each payment; the government takes the rest.

This throws families into increasingly deeper cycles of poverty. Parents with low incomes can struggle to make payments in the first place. Then, if they succeed, they likely do so by racking up debt. So, trying to do right by their children, they incur one debt to pay off another, and their kids find their families in even worse economic straits. The Walter & Elise Fund and its partners, such as the San Francisco Financial Justice Project (a longtime grantee of the Fund), believe that every cent of what parents pay in child support should go to their children.

Spreading the word

On May 11, Truth and Justice in Child Support organized more than fifty organizations across California, including the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, to produce and launch a three-minute video that brings awareness to this problem. The short, Everything You Think You Know About California Child Support is Wrong, narrated by W. Kamau Bell and Robert Reich, advances the coalition’s call for 100% of all parents’ child support payments to go to their children.

W. Kamau Bell and Robert Reich

The pilot project featured in this video found that if we relieve parents’ government-owed child support debt, then all of parents’ payments go to their children, the regularity of parents’ payments increases, and all members of the family benefit. The Walter & Elise Haas Fund is proud to have supported this pilot, providing the funds used to pay down parents’ debt. Tipping Point Community supported the evaluation of the pilot, which was conducted by Urban Institute.

COVID-19 and child support

Families served by the child support system are disproportionately families of color with low incomes. These are the same people experiencing the greatest challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic: high rates of infection and death, job loss, lack of health coverage, and challenges accessing the internet for digital learning and work. Even at this time, both federal and state COVID-19 relief policies allow the government to intercept cash relief payments to pay off child support debt.

Reforms to California’s child support system are more urgent than ever. Watch the video. Share it with your networks. And sign up for updates from the Truth and Justice in Child Support Coalition, which is advocating for reforms. Now is the time to work together to ensure Californians’ child support payments go where they’re needed most, to their children.


Thank you to Jacob Kornbluth Productions, W. Kamau Bell, Robert Reich, and all of the members of Truth and Justice in Child Support for creating this powerful video. Thank you also to our video funding partner, the San Francisco Foundation.

Blog, Economic Security


  1. Jennifer

    Hello, Where did you get the percentage of monies that go to reimburse the government public assistance programs?

    • Suki OKane

      The source of that $50 figure comes from existing California state law (Section 17500 and Section 17504 of the Family Code) relating to child support. Let us know if we’re understanding your question correctly!

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