Performance Improvement 1999. Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents Fair Share


Highlights: Parents’ Fair Share (PFS) program model began in 1992 as a two-year pilot project by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). This report represents the initial findings on program implementation and the initial impacts on several key outcomes. This interim report, which is one of several reports that will be released about the demonstration project, describes how PFS services were implemented, offers insights into challenges of the program and how they might be addressed, and provides information on the background of the parents in the PFS research sample. These early findings address the program’s initial success in meeting two of the three demonstration goals: 1) increasing employment and earnings, and 2) raising the child support payments of non-custodial fathers.

Findings from the first 18 months of the project indicate that PFS did increase the number of fathers who paid child support, but with no corresponding increase in those fathers’ employment and earnings. Multiple factors contribute to the lack of non-custodial support to children who are poor. Non-custodial fathers who are able to pay child support will do so with some assistance and those who do not have multiple reasons for not paying support. Government-wide programs that offer a variety of support services to non-custodial fathers can impact the level of child support provided to their children. This report is based on administrative data on child support collections and earnings. The final evaluation report will include survey results from both custodial and non-custodial parents.

The purpose of this pilot project was to implement a unique cooperative arrangement between the child support system, local community-based organizations and non-custodial fathers. It was hoped that with supportive services, such as peer group assistance, non-custodial fathers would increase their involvement with their children. It was further hoped that, with employment training and job location assistance, these fathers would find employment and increase their earnings, thereby placing themselves in the position to pay child support and to pay it in a timely fashion. The ultimate goal of this project, therefore, was to effect a system that would support more responsible non-custodial parenting.

Parents Fair Share (PFS) was formed as a result of three interrelated trends and the dilemma facing courts and child support administrators. First, welfare reform efforts that gained momentum in the 1980's shifted responsibility for supporting poor children away from the public sector to the parents. Second, since the mid-1970's, continuing through the 1996 welfare law, the Federal government has required States to strengthen child support enforcement (CSE). The goal is to help low-income families stay off welfare and to recoup money spent on welfare recipients. The focus has largely been on non-custodial parents with income and assets. The research indicates, however, that a significant portion of non-custodial parents (usually fathers) of children receiving welfare have few financial resources and unstable residencies and employment.

The third trend that led to the development of PFS is the rapid decline in job opportunities for less educated men. Public policy programs have largely focused on parents receiving welfare (mostly women) and dislocated workers. Men, especially those of color, were largely overlooked in employment outreach programs and few programs were successful in increasing their employment and earnings. Thus, the growing importance of child support for poor families, low earnings and sporadic employment of men of color and the lack of alternative programs for those who are unemployed, creates a dilemma for child support administrators and the courts.

The PFS program offers a solution by offering employment referrals and job training opportunities.

To test the feasibility of the PFS approach, MDRC launched a two-year pilot phase in 1992. There were three overall goals for the pilot project: (1) to increase employment and earnings of unemployed non-custodial parents (mainly fathers) of children receiving welfare; (2) to increase child support payments; and (3) to support and improve the parenting behavior of these parents. The pilot experience was promising enough to warrant a more rigorous test of the programs’ effects on non-custodial parents’ employment rates, earnings, and child support payments, and on aspects of their parenting skills, and their children’s well-being. This is a report of the second test of the program’s effectiveness, which began in 1994.

The study was based on a research design where eligible non-custodial parents were assigned, at random, to one of two groups: a program group that accessed the program’s services or a control group that could not receive those services. The analysis compared the labor market, child support payment, and parenting experiences of the two groups. All differences that were measured between the two groups were attributable to the Parents’ Fair Share program.

During the first 18 months of this project, PFS did increase the number of fathers who paid child support. However, only three sites reported increases: Grand Rapids, Dayton and Los Angeles. These sites reported sizeable increases in the number of fathers paying child support, but not in the amount they paid. Those fathers who paid support as a result of PFS already had the means to pay something, but would have paid nothing without PFS support. The findings also suggest that one of the factors common to two of the sites that increased child support payments was the strong involvement of the Child Support Enforcement (CSE) agency.

In contrast, during the first 18 months of this project, none of the sites produced consistent and statistically significant increases in non-custodial fathers’ employment and earnings. In fact, during the first quarter, 50.3 percent of PFS fathers worked, compared with 51.9 percent of control group fathers. PFS produced no significant impacts on employment. Also, average earnings were no different, statistically, between the two groups. Reasons for the lack of success were not clear, although most of the sites were not able to provide a full range of employment and training services. These services were to include basic education, job search assistance, skills training, and on-the-job training. It was also found that on-the-job training was the most difficult component to develop.

The data revealed that many of the non-custodial fathers had problems that hampered their ability to obtain and keep jobs, such as a history of drug abuse, criminal backgrounds or poor education preparation.

Use of Results
This study revealed that it is possible to increase the payment of child support by non-custodial fathers through enhanced outreach and focused case review. PFS was not able to significantly impact the employment and earnings status of the fathers in the study sample. Many factors contributed to this failure, including the fact that many fathers enrolled in the program with the expectation they would obtain better jobs and thus higher pay. Their refusal to accept any job because they were holding out for the ultimate “better” job caused higher unemployment rates for these fathers at certain sites.

The challenges presented by this demonstration program model provide clear, substantive information for those who seek to replicate such a program. Program support can impact the level of child support to poor children by their non-custodial fathers. Non-custodial fathers who are able to pay child support will do so with some assistance. Those who do not pay have multiple reasons for not paying such support. Thus, multiple factors contribute to the lack of non-custodial support to children who are poor.

AGENCY SPONSOR: Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation and Office of Child Support Enforcement


PHONE NUMBER: 202-401-4538

PERFORMER ORGANIZATION: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, New York, NY