Innovations in State Child Support Policy: A Smarter Way to Support Children and Fathers

By James Jones, B.MORE Initiative Coordinator, NTJN

Fathers Day

“Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it.” – President Barack Obama (Father’s Day 2008)

This Father’s Day, we reflected on the selfless efforts of dads all across the country.  Fathers play a unique and important role in the lives of their children, spouses, and co-parents.  That role, however, can be undermined by stereotypes that relegate the breadth of a father’s contributions solely to provider or family breadwinner—stereotypes that have helped drive policies that marginalize low-income men who are unable to financially support their children and families.

In particular, low-income, noncustodial African American men are often depicted as dead beat dads—a negative narrative that is not supported by any empirical evidenceThe reality is that low-income African American men are often penalized by a web of child support policies and enforcement practices that were designed to collect revenue from noncustodial parents who were financially able, yet sometimes unwilling, to help support their families.  The impact of these “one-size-fits-all” policies is that families at the lowest end of the income spectrum tend to suffer severely.

In keeping with states like Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, Wisconsin and others, we encourage state child support enforcement agencies and entities serving low-income noncustodial fathers to implement innovative policies that help fathers meet their obligations while meeting their own basic needs, and help lift families out of poverty by helping parents succeed in employment.   This blog takes a longer look at states that are doing just that—and provides policy recommendations that we hope will help spur  innovation in a greater number of states.

Harsh Child Support Enforcement Tactics Aren’t Working
When low-income and chronically unemployed fathers are hit with punitive actions by the court for non-payment of child support, this only further forces them and their families into poverty.  These dads want to contribute, but many of them are poor.  Nearly 3 million working age black men are living in poverty in the United States, a rate of more than 1 in 5 (21.3%).  Many of these men are non-custodial parents and are part of the child support system.  The child support program serves half of all poor children in the country and 17 million children in total. Tactics used to punish individuals who are not in compliance with child support orders can be harsh, including the revocation of driver’s and professional licenses or even imprisonment.  Behind bars or unable to practice their trades, these tactics make obtaining and retaining employment—which is already difficult for low-income men with barriers to work—a seemingly insurmountable task.

And that’s not all.  Local child support offices report non-payment to credit bureaus, which has an impact on the perceived trustworthiness of an individual in the eyes of employers who are increasingly running credit checks on job applicants.  The low-wage jobs that are often available to these men are also unattractive, because child support payments often consume a large portion—up to 65%—of their income and leave them unable to meet their own basic needs.  This often drives men to find work in the underground economy, placing them at risk of incarceration, and leaves mothers and children without a consistent and reliable means of support.  Finally, struggling to manage high child support debt makes it virtually impossible to accumulate assets such as a home, savings account, or college fund—assets that are necessary to provide the best quality of life for children.

The end result is that all too often neither families nor the state are getting payment for the care of low-income children—a problem that the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) acknowledges and has studied.  

Innovative State-Level Strategies
Strengthening fathers’ ability to pay child support through innovative employment and child support collaborations, increasing noncustodial parenting time, and reducing the amount of state-owed arrearages through order modification and debt forgiveness programs are just a few of the approaches the Federal OCSE has tested to increase low-income fathers’ ability to support their children financially.  It is time for more states to advance policy reforms that get money in the hands of families that need it most, bring some relief to state budgets, and support fathers in a way that allows them to provide for their children and themselves.  Some states—including Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Indiana—are leading the way in implementing these types of innovative policy reforms.

Child support enforcement policies vary from state to state, but generally states recoup first the monies owed to them for cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF, or welfare) and pass the remainder along to families.  The noncustodial parent is then held responsible for reimbursement of state contributions as well as making regular monthly payments for the support of the mother and child.  In the case of low-income and chronically unemployed men, however, these obligations are often times impossible to meet, resulting in large state-owed arrearages coupled with monthly support orders.  The emerging innovations described here highlight examples of measures states can take to improve the employment and income trajectory of low-income noncustodial fathers and revise child support policies and practices to ensure that a father’s child support order aligns with his financial means.

Missouri:  Missouri has an innovative arrangement between the local circuit court and Connections to Success, a regional social service agency that helps people with barriers to employment achieve economic self-sufficiency.  The Circuit Court in St. Charles, MO, refers noncustodial fathers with child support arrears to Connections to Success for training, job placement, transitional jobs, and other supports.  By law, the court is obligated to hold contempt hearings and eventually levy penalties on fathers if they fail to adhere to their child support orders.  The district prosecutor and a number of judges, however, see the need for new options and have moved forward with this arrangement.  While the court does impose penalties if a father still fails to comply with his child support order, this partnership with Connections to Success offers the courts an additional option for helping to reduce child support debts that has proven more effective than levying the penalties up front.  

Kansas: In 2012, Connections to Success—which also operates in Kansas—began a three-year “Responsible Fatherhood Program” primarily serving men residing in Wyandotte County, KS.  This program was designed to reach unemployed, noncustodial fathers and empower them with the necessary resources to become employed, engage with their children, and take financial responsibility for their children’s well-being.  In an effort to reach these hard-to-serve men, the Kansas Department of Children & Families (DCF) instituted a state-owed child support arrears forgiveness program, with credits given to fathers based on their level of commitment to the Connections to Success program.  Specifically, a $50 arrears forgiveness credit is accrued for each hour of program participation, up to a cap of $2,000.  This strategy is intended to provide the greatest incentive to those demonstrating the most effort in transforming their lives.  Last year, Kansas discharged $177,278 in child support debt that Connections to Success participants owed to the state.  Furthermore, participants earned over $1 million in taxed income from gainful employment and paid more than $256,000 in child support.  Based on that success, DCF has extended this plan to include educational and vocational training achievements.   

Wisconsin: In Milwaukee County, WI, innovations in child support enforcement were given a boost with the disbursement of the Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration Grants from the US Department of Labor, and the Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood Demonstration Grants through the Department of Health and Human Services.  The grants fund services through strategic partnerships between the Young Women’s Christian Association YWCA, Milwaukee County Child Support, My Father’s House, and several other community partners and aim to assist providers in helping individuals with significant barriers to employment – specifically, low-income non-custodial parents and ex-offenders – obtain the skills they need in the workplace.  The programs will offer more than 3,500 people temporary, paid work experiences to improve their employability, earnings and opportunities for advancement, as well as promote their self-sufficiency and long-term success in the workforce.  One way that Wisconsin is leveraging strategic partnerships to implement innovations in child support policy is to provide state-owed arrearage credits to men after the successful completion of either parenting or relationship classes with one of the Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood partners.  Liens on driver’s licenses due to failure to pay can also be lifted through participation in the various fatherhood programs.

Indiana: RecycleForce, a social enterprise transitional jobs program that provides recycling services in Indiana and workforce training to formerly incarcerated individuals, has developed a strong partnership with the local Indiana Child Support Division to better serve noncustodial fathers.  A RecycleForce consultant works with the Child Support Division to quickly identify participants who have child support orders, ensures that orders are proportionate with pay, and petitions the court for modification as necessary.  The consultant also works one-on-one with every noncustodial parent on issues related to child support, paternity, parenting time, and visitation as needed and requested.  Since November 2011, Recycleforce has served 152 noncustodial parents with child support orders.  All orders were set up for payroll deduction. As an incentive to participate in RecycleForce’s transitional jobs program,  arrearage payments for the fathers involved were reduced to $1 per week while working at Recycleforce, then rose to only $10 per week post-Recycleforce employment as long as child support was paid regularly.  In Indiana, driver’s licenses are routinely suspended for having a child support arrearage.  Among RecycleForce participants however, all licenses suspended due to child support arrearages have been reinstated.

Policy Recommendations to Support State and Local Innovation
Low-income fathers struggling with chronic unemployment are the overwhelming majority of men who have been ordered by courts to pay child support debt.  In order for low-income fathers to be a positive force in the lives of their children and families, we must provide the type of support that helps build them up and enable to them to provide.  In doing this we will be helping fathers and the children all across America who need it most. What follows are a sampling of recommendations for state and local entities involved in child support enforcement.

To help low-income noncustodial fathers provide more consistent financial support to their families, we recommend that states and localities:

  • Actively address the prevalence of low-income and jobless men with excessive child support debt and adopt new policies for handling the collection of child support, such as:

o   Conduct an in-depth wage analysis of all debtors with high arrearages in order to modify orders that more accurately fit their income;

o   Create of an income scale that provides state-owed arrearage compromises for men who fall into certain income categories (eg: 100, 70, and 50% of the Federal Poverty Level); and

o   Create a task force that is proactive about handling modification petitions when noncustodial fathers are incarcerated, including but not limited to, advancing innovative legal representation programs for fathers who are incarcerated to seek arrearage modification.

To improve the employment and income trajectory of low-income noncustodial fathers, we recommend that states and localities:

  • Establish and consistently utilize referral relationships to employment, job placement, and training providers in the community for noncustodial fathers.
  • For noncustodial fathers with the greatest barriers to employment, seek out or establish transitional jobs, subsidized employment, or other wage-paid, real work opportunities to ensure fathers can earn income immediately and build their skills.
  • Advance innovative arrearage forgiveness or modification programs, (like those described here and others), that incentivize participation in employment and training activities.
  • Advance innovative state-matched savings and asset-building programs including Individual Development Accounts (IDA’s) aligned with participation in employment and training programs.
  • Establish and fund child support navigator programs for low-income noncustodial parents aimed at supporting father’s knowledge of and connection to child support offices, employment and training programs, family and fatherhood supports, and other community benefits.

Through the generous support of the Institute for Black Male Achievement, we are currently building the capacity of non-profit partners in Missouri to advance a statewide policy campaign aimed at aligning the child support system with the needs of low-income noncustodial fathers and families. If you are interested in learning more or engaging with us to advance a similar campaign in your state, please contact: James Jones via email at

The image posted with this blog is a mosaic created by fathers, Center for Urban Families (CFUF), Baltimore, MD




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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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