Chapter 8: Child Support Enforcement

Issues: Child Support Enforcement

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 codified in Title IV-D of the Social Security Act.

Child support is the cash payment that noncustodial parents are legally obligated to make for the financial support of their children. It generally is established when parents divorce or separate or when the custodial parent applies for public assistance. It is usually paid on a monthly basis. 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. This program is based on the premise that both parents are financially responsible for their children, and that parents who do not live with their children should fulfill that responsibility to them by contributing to the payment of childrearing costs. 

When the CSE program was first established, its goals were to reimburse the states and the federal government for the cash assistance (“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 all forms of public assistance. 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.  

Throughout this evolution in program focus, the CSE program has maintained different rules for assistance and nonassistance families. Families who are required to enroll in the CSE program are those receiving cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), Medicaid coverage, or, at state option, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance. The program is also available to nonassistance families if they choose to enroll. Nonassistance child support cases are assessed an application fee and a $35 annual user fee per $550 in child support that is collected for that case, unless the state chooses to waive or cover the cost of those fees. 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 61 tribal nations. The CSE program is usually operated at the county-level of government.

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 allowable expenditures on CSE activities. (3) States collect child support made on behalf of TANF families to reimburse themselves and the federal government for the cost of TANF cash payments. (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-assistance families may help finance the CSE program.

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.

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports

For more programmatic information, please see reports published by the Congressional Research Service.

CRS works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to Committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.

Legislative History

The following provides a legislative history of the Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program from the prior Green Book through most of the 115th Congress. For prior history, please see prior editions of the Green Book.

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (P.L. 115-97)

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act increased the annual user fee from $25 to $35 for using the child support enforcement system while also increasing the minimum amount of child support collections that triggers the imposition of that fee from $500 to $550. The act made no changes to the types of cases that are subject to this fee.


This page was prepared September 2018 for the 2018 version of the House Ways and Means Committee Green Book.