Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. 1. Introduction

05/01/1998

In the last 30 years, the American family has undergone dramatic changes owing to rising rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing. Today, it is estimated that about half of all American children will spend at least some part of their lives in single-parent households. These families — most of which are headed by mothers — are more likely to be living in poverty than those headed by two parents and to be at greater risk of needing welfare. Regular child support payments would afford some of these families a measure of economic relief, yet many do not receive it, often because they do not have support orders in place or because the orders are not being enforced. The connection between more effective enforcement of child support obligations and reduction of welfare receipt has long been recognized and has led to a series of reforms over the last two decades. But despite improvements, the record of success remains mixed.

The recent overhaul of the nation’s welfare laws has made the task of improving child support enforcement (CSE) for low-income families more urgent than ever. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) ended the federal guarantee of cash assistance under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a federal block grant to states that carries strict work participation requirements and ends federal funding for cash assistance after a five-year lifetime limit for most welfare recipients. As a consequence, welfare-dependent families will face great pressure to replace lost benefits with new income streams, including child support payments. The new law also forces states to bear more of the fiscal consequences of their policy choices, since the level of funding for the block grant is essentially fixed for the first six years with no adjustment for inflation. Thus, states will increasingly view child support collections as one way to compensate for anticipated shortfalls in federal revenues in future years. Clearly, child support enforcement will continue to play a critical role in evolving welfare policy.

Collecting child support from low-income noncustodial parents (NCPs) poses special challenges for the CSE system. First, while advances in enforcement techniques have improved child support collections among the nonwelfare families served by the CSE system, they have been less successful in addressing the needs of welfare recipients. Frustrated in their efforts to reach this group, CSE agencies have tended to de-emphasize enforcement for NCPs without known income. Consequently, little is known about the absent parents in such cases. Second, it is uncertain that stepping up enforcement in this area will yield an increase in dollars sufficient to justify the added effort and expense. Research suggests that more effective enforcement would make a substantial difference overall, but says little about how the increment would be distributed across income groups. The NCPs of children on welfare are in large part an unknown quantity; how many could pay support if compelled to do so is a matter of some debate.

This report examines the experience of the Parents’ Fair Share (PFS) program, in which seven local CSE agencies attempted to work with their AFDC-related caseloads more intensively than before. The PFS experience suggests several things. First, while current CSE practices may not be ideally suited to dealing with the NCPs in these cases, they can be adapted to work better. Second, locating these NCPs may pay unexpected dividends by allowing CSE staff to sort out the "unwilling" from the "unable"; that is, the process may unearth enough employed fathers who can pay support to make the effort worthwhile. Third, a PFS-type program can be instrumental in improving enforcement against unemployed low-income NCPs by performing monitoring and follow-up functions that the courts or administrative agencies are not able to do well. Moreover, by providing a constructive alternative to the usual punishments available for noncompliant obligors (people with child support obligations), PFS-type programs help lend "political legitimacy" to aggressive enforcement efforts against an extremely disadvantaged group.