By now you have probably heard the bad news: more than one in five children in the U.S. lived in poverty in 2009. But this number would have been even worse if not for the child support enforcement program, which helps families collect the support they are due.  Child support reduces child poverty by nearly 25% in poor families that receive it, and in 2009, the child support enforcement program served more than 17 million children and distributed over $24 billion in child support to families. Thanks to bipartisan reforms enacted in 1998, the program has more than doubled its collection rate in the past 12 years and become highly cost-effective, collecting $4.78 in child support for every $1 spent by federal, state and local governments.

But major cuts to child support enforcement threaten to unravel this progress. During the Bush administration, the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) cut funding for the program. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) restored the funding, but because Congress failed to act before leaving town this week, the DRA cuts will be reinstated today, reducing child support funding next year by 16 percent. Before the DRA was enacted in 2006, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that cuts to staff and services cause by the net loss of federal funds would reduce child support collections by $8.4 billion over 10 years – if states made up for half of the loss with their own funds. Since the onset of the recession in December 2007, states have faced severe budget shortfalls and are unlikely to be able to replace federal funding. As a result, current estimates indicate that the DRA cuts to funding for child support enforcement will cost families $2 billion in uncollected child support in FY 2011 alone.

Congress has one more chance to renew funding for child support enforcement and other vital anti-poverty programs when it returns for a lame duck session after the November elections. A potential vehicle is the revised tax extenders bill introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, which would prevent the child support cuts from taking effect for another year and provide $1.5 billion to continue the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Contingency Fund. Making these provisions retroactive to October 1 could prevent harm to families relying on these programs. The Baucus bill also would extend core TANF programs and mandatory child care funding (which are only funded through December 3, 2010 under the continuing resolution that Congress passed before the recess).

Congress will have a lot of unfinished business to attend to during the lame duck session, but protecting programs that help vulnerable children and families should be at the top of its priority list. Now is not the time to weaken effective tools in the fight against poverty.