Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. 5. Summary of Lessons and Policy Implications


Many recent reforms of the child support system are based on the assumption that nonpayment is primarily an enforcement problem that can be addressed by enhancing the IV-D system’s ability to track down NCPs and to compel payment from those unwilling to pay voluntarily. And, as has been noted in this report, most CSE reforms are geared toward NCPs whose employment, financial, and residential circumstances are relatively stable.

The PFS experience suggests that among the low-income NCP population, nonpayment of child support is a much more complex problem. For some poor NCPs, the problem is clearly lack of a commitment to pay, at least through the formal child support system in which much — or, in the future, conceivably all — of the support payment for CPs and children receiving welfare never reaches the family. But other poor NCPs lack the financial wherewithal to pay, and still others — because of frequent changes in their lives — no longer should face a current support obligation. And the lives of many low-income noncustodial parents do not fit a middle-class profile, so many standard location and enforcement measures are of limited use and courts are often hard-pressed to determine the "real" circumstances of the NCPs’ lives.

PFS was developed as a response to this complexity, an attempt to fashion an alternative to a policy approach that — while appropriate in many families — seems like an overly standardized, "one-size-fits-all" strategy when applied to families receiving welfare. In doing this, it is clear that PFS goes against the trend in child support toward more standardization, more use of administrative records, more intensive efforts to impose sanctions for nonpayment, and efforts to lower the cost of enforcement. One of the crucial questions in PFS is whether the initial steps in the program to identify and refer appropriate NCPs to services are so difficult, time-consuming, and therefore expensive and the initial payoff is so small that the effort is not worthwhile from the very inception.

This report has described this initial stage in the program, showing how PFS sites developed or adapted administrative processes to serve as agents of the courts and CSE system. They worked to better tailor the enforcement response to the circumstances of the NCPs. The experience of the PFS sites so far suggests that they have succeeded in putting in place new procedures that can dramatically increase the accuracy of the sorting process inherent in CSE: the need to distinguish the unwilling from the unable. By increasing the monitoring of the status of nonpaying NCPs, PFS appears to be smoking out considerable previously unreported employment and helping local agencies to identify cases in which the circumstances of the NCPs have changed so substantially that they should no longer face a current obligation (though arrearages would need to be repaid). By having a new enforcement option (the PFS services) to which apparently unemployed or underemployed NCPs can be referred for mandatory participation, the courts and CSE agencies have a further method of sorting, which poses little risk. If an NCP is working and hiding that fact, the PFS participation mandate can force him to reveal it. If he is in need of services, they are available to him.

The final story on the accuracy of this sorting process, its costs relative to benefits, and the resulting impact on support payments and other aspects of NCPs’ involvement with their children is not yet known; it awaits future PFS reports estimating program impacts, costs, and benefits based on the random assignment, experimental research design put in place during the demonstration. But early indications at the sites are that the smokeout of previously unreported income has been substantial and produced child support payments, and the availability of PFS shows promise in helping poor, unemployed, or underemployed NCPs to participate more fully and effectively in the support and parenting of their children. As would be expected in an endeavor this difficult, the implementation of the program has had its problems and the program is clearly not able to help all NCPs. But this early experience suggests that PFS is in fact worth the effort to test rigorously.

Beyond these overall policy conclusions, this report suggests more concrete administrative lessons, primarily approaches that sites developed to implement PFS but that could offer insights for CSE agencies in general. These include identifying potential referrals to PFS, locating these NCPs, and gaining their cooperation in the review and referral process, and on ways that the PFS option allowed local CSE programs to tighten up the overall administration of their programs.