Innovations in Child Support Policy: 3 Ways to Increase Employment + Economic Opportunity for Noncustodial Parents

By James Jones, B.MORE Initiative Coordinator, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

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In 1995, President William “Bill” Clinton proclaimed August National Child Support Awareness Month.  The goal was to raise awareness about the critical role child support plays in the lives of millions of American children.  Clinton was responding to a social problem that appeared to be on the rise.  In the mid-nineties, there was a growing percentage of single parent households in America and children in those households had a high chance of suffering from poverty. Today, almost two decades later, the child support program serves half of all poor children in the country and 17 million children in total.

While many noncustodial parents want to be involved with their children, many also live in poverty and lack the resources to financially provide for their children. Most unpaid child support is owed by these parents and for many the lack of steady income is a major barrier to fulfilling parental obligations.  At the same time, child support payments represent a significant portion of the income of families living in poverty.  Oftentimes, these payments are responsible for keeping children out of extreme poverty.

The National Initiatives on Poverty and Economic Opportunity team is focused on developing and expanding sustainable policy solutions that benefit children and increase employment and economic opportunities for low-income noncustodial parents.  To that end, this July we led a strategic policy/advocacy planning and campaign development summit with our partners at Connections to Success (CtS) in Missouri and Kansas.  Working with Connections’ leadership and program staff, we equipped them to identify and advance child support policies in Missouri that could better support low-income, noncustodial fathers’ efforts to access employment opportunities, support their children, and advance in the labor market.  Drawing from our training with CtS, in this blog we’re highlighting three child support policy innovations that would increase employment and economic opportunity for low-income parents.

Innovation #1: Rightsizing Child Support Orders To Meet Parents’ Ability to Pay
Many states have instituted new procedures to establish more realistic child support orders based on parents’ ability to pay. Setting an income-based order means that parents pay their child support more regularly over time. Where child support orders are not based upon the noncustodial parent’s actual ability to pay, children are less likely to receive support. High debt levels may interfere with parental employment, parental involvement, increase family conflict, and reduce current support payments.

Innovation #2: Debt Compromise to Help Noncustodial Parents Reduce Their Arrears 
In fiscal year 2010, child support arrears nationwide reached a staggering $110 billion. Research shows that most of these arrears are not collectable. The primary reason child support arrears are so difficult to collect is because an estimated 70 percent of arrears are owed by noncustodial parents with little or no reported income. Research also suggests that child support arrears might discourage noncustodial parents from working in the formal economy and paying child support.

Some state child support agencies have revisited their child support debt collection policies and have piloted or implemented promising practices around debt compromise.  For example, from 2005 to 2007 Wisconsin’s Racine County piloted a debt compromise program called Families Forward, which reduced eligible participants’ state-owed debt by 50 cents for every dollar of current support paid over a two year period.  As of September 2011, the child support program in 24 states and the District of Columbia have implemented a debt compromise program.

Innovation #3: Employment Programs to Help Noncustodial Parents Succeed in Work
Approximately 25 percent of noncustodial parents have a limited ability to pay child support. Most of these fathers and their nonresident children live in poverty. Traditional child support enforcement tools, such as wage withholding, license revocation, and other administrative actions, are typically unsuccessful with this population and can undermine employment retention. The underlying problem for some parents is that they face multiple employment barriers and cannot find or maintain a job. To address these issues, states and communities have implemented work-oriented programs, such as  transitional jobs programs, for unemployed noncustodial parents who are behind in their child support.

As of September 2011, there were at least 28 states with at least 38 work-oriented programs for noncustodial parents in which a child support program was involved. These programs vary in many ways, but the ultimate goal is the same – increase the likelihood that noncustodial parents are working and paying child support.

For further information on the child support system and innovations in enforcement policies that are beneficial for all, download our slides from the Connections to Success strategic policy/advocacy planning and campaign development summit. The slides illustrate an overview of the history of the child support system, a break-down of current federal, state, and local child support obligations, and innovations in child support reform efforts that help lift families out of poverty.

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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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