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In most states in America, child support doesn’t actually go to children. Particularly when they are being raised in low-income families.

Confused? You’re not alone. Many people have no clue how the child support and public assistance systems operate.

The first thing to know: If you are a custodial parent (a majority of whom are mothers) and apply for public assistance (most commonly Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF), you are required by federal law to file a child support order.

“There is no choice for either parent,” says Jhumpa Bhattacharya, vice president for programs and strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. “For the custodial parent, you lose your much-needed benefits if you don’t comply. For the noncustodial parent, an order is set sometimes without your knowledge, and often not based on your actual economic situation, or an understanding of how you may be contributing in nonfinancial ways.” “What if you provide child care?” she asks. “Buy diapers or clothing regularly? Those things don’t count.”

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