Child Support Enforcement Introduction and Overview


The federal Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program was signed into law in 1975 by President Gerald Ford. It was part of the Social Services Amendments of 1974 (P.L. 93-647). The CSE program is Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. The CSE program is based on the premise that both parents are financially responsible for their children. Child support is the cash payment that noncustodial parents are legally obligated to pay for the financial support of their children. It generally is established when parents divorce or separate or when the custodial parent applies for welfare. It is usually paid on a monthly basis.

When the CSE program was first established, its goals were to reimburse the states and the federal government for the welfare payments it provided families and to help other families obtain consistent and ongoing child support payments from the noncustodial parent so that they could remain self-sufficient and stay off welfare. Congress through legislative changes has broadened the mission of the CSE program. The CSE program has evolved over time from a “welfare cost-recovery” program into a “family-first” service delivery program that seeks to enhance the well-being of families by making child support a reliable source of income. The mission of the CSE program is to enhance the well-being of children by helping custodial parents and children obtain financial support from the noncustodial parents on a consistent and continuing basis. Child support payments enable parents who do not live with their children to fulfill their financial responsibility to their children by contributing to the payment of childrearing costs.

The CSE program provides seven basic services on behalf of children. It (1) locates noncustodial parents, (2) establishes paternity, (3) establishes child support orders, (4) reviews and modifies child support orders, (5) collects child support payments from noncustodial parents, (6) establishes and enforces medical child support, and (7) distributes child support payments to custodial parents.

The CSE program is administered at the federal level by the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The CSE program is available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and about 50 tribal nations. The CSE program is usually operated at the county-level of government.

The CSE program is a federal-state program that provides services to both welfare and non-welfare families. Welfare families (i.e., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, Title IV-A) recipients, federal foster care families (Title IV-E), and Medicaid recipients (Title XIX)) are automatically enrolled in the program, free of charge. Non-welfare families must sign-up for CSE services and pay an application fee. Also non-welfare families pay a $25 annual user fee if at least $500 per year is collected on behalf of the custodial parent.

There are four primary funding streams for the CSE program. (1) States spend their own money to operate a CSE program. (2) The federal government reimburses each state 66% of all expenditures on CSE activities. (3) States collect child support made on behalf of TANF and foster care families to reimburse themselves and the federal government for the cost of TANF and child welfare payments and/or services to the families. (4) The federal government provides states with an incentive payment to encourage them to operate effective CSE programs. In addition, application and user fees and costs recovered from non-welfare families may help finance the CSE program.

In FY2010, about 14% of the CSE caseload consisted of TANF families; about 43% were families who had at some point been on the TANF program, and 43% were families that had never received TANF benefits. In FY2010, the CSE program collected $26.6 billion in child support payments from noncustodial parents and served 15.9 million child support cases. Of the $26.6 billion collected in child support payments, about 93% went to families, 6% went to state and federal governments, and 1% consisted of medical support payments or fees paid to states. On average, in FY2010 the CSE program collected $4.88 in child support payments for each $1 spent on the program. In FY2010, total CSE expenditures amounted to $5.8 billion.

Not all child support goes through the CSE program. The CSE program handles between 50-60% of all child support cases; the rest are handled by private attorneys or collection agencies, or through mutual agreements between parents.

Chapter Overview

This chapter of the Green Book includes a series of Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports organized under the following general headings. Readers should consult the reports listed under each of these headings for information and data related to these topics.

  • General Information
  • CSE Financing
  • CSE Location Methods
  • CSE Collection Techniques
  • CSE Payors

A separate section identifies Tables and Figures included in the CRS reports and also provides additional tables and figures related to the CSE program. Additional sections include a Legislative History and Links to Additional Resources: