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.
I. Identifying Potential Referrals to PFS
From the initial stages of the demonstration, sites participating in PFS recognized that change and instability were inherent in the lives of low-income custodial and noncustodial parents. This led to an expansion of the original definition of program eligibility to include NCPs who were underemployed and those whose affiliated CP was not currently receiving AFDC but had in the past. There was also a desire (not fulfilled in the demonstration) to expand eligibility beyond parents with a link to AFDC, to operate PFS as a preventive measure for families where the CP might otherwise need to rely on public assistance.
In seeking NCPs who were potential referrals to the program, sites also realized that the lack of a PFS-service option had led them to route some CSE cases to second-best options. The example from Montgomery County of cases routed to the PLS to determine employment was the most striking in this regard. With the new possibility of PFS, local CSE officials were able to identify many NCPs by retrieving cases from these alternates or reviewing the CSE caseload for nonpaying NCPs whose cases had received little prior enforcement priority.
II. Locating NCPs
While computerized information systems have undoubtedly improved the ability of IV-D agencies to locate absent parents overall, they are only as effective as the quality and timeliness of the information put into them. Therefore, they are most likely to help in locating NCPs who hold a regular job, reside in one place, and own assets. Information systems are less useful for locating low-income NCPs who are not connected to the mainstream economy or to government social programs.
Interviews with PFS participants and staff revealed that substantial numbers of these NCPs had sporadic work histories, punctuated by long periods of unemployment. Often when they did work, the PFS participants reported that they did so off the books. For these men, unemployment insurance records, IRS files, and credit bureau histories are of little use. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that information systems lag behind the individual’s current circumstances, and low-income NCPs tend to hold onto jobs for shorter periods of time than their middle-class counterparts.
Other databases typically relied upon by CSE agencies are designed to locate assets — department of motor vehicle records, for instance, and bank accounts. Interviews with PFS participants revealed that many of them did not have valid driver’s licenses, let alone cars, and that they did not have any credit or bank accounts. And low-income men, unlike their female counterparts, are less likely to participate in the welfare programs that bind recipients to the government.
The unstable living arrangements of many low-income NCPs also frustrate CSE agencies’ attempts to reach them. Addresses in the system are not always current, and often are those of relatives or friends with whom the NCPs periodically stay. Service of process rules in most of the PFS sites require that, at the very least, notices of impending hearings be sent by certified mail (although in some sites regular mail is sufficient); certainly, some of these notices never reached the intended recipients. On the other hand, relatively few letters that were sent were returned as undeliverable by the postal service — far fewer than the number of NCPs who did not show up. This suggests that many notices were delivered, but to relatives or friends who may or may not have encouraged the NCPs to comply.
The experience in Montgomery County, where CSE staff home visits led to an increase in the appearance rate at hearings, attests to the potential payoff to moving away from the usual practice of office-based investigation to a more community-based approach. During their outreach efforts, staff first contacted the CPs for leads and then had the staff follow up by visiting addresses and talking with other family members, neighbors, and landlords. This presence in the neighborhood led to new leads on addresses or employment; information on illness, death, or incarceration; and "filtering" of the word that NCPs should contact the CSE agency through informal networks of family and friends. As the sharp rise in appearances at hearings indicates, there is a payoff in increased success in locating NCPs.
III. Gaining NCPs’ Cooperation
While some portion of the low appearance rate at CSE hearings can be attributed to a lack of notice, an equal or possibly bigger issue appears to be noncooperation by NCPs. As revealed through interviews with PFS participants and staff, the failure of NCPs to respond may be due to a variety of attitudinal factors, including the perception that there is little risk that they will be caught, or, conversely, the fear of going to jail. Among PFS participants there is a pervasive sense that the child support system is unfair and insensitive to the plight of low-income fathers, more interested in wringing money out of them than in fostering stronger family ties. In the case of African-American men, this is compounded by a general sense of grievance against the criminal justice system, of which CSE is seen to be very much a part. Added to these attitudinal factors are the logistical problems caused by lack of money and transportation to get to the hearing site, a particular issue in geographically large jurisdictions with only a central office or courthouse. The PFS experience suggests that developing the right balance of sanction threat and message of opportunity, coupled with efforts to make appearance somewhat easier logistically, could increase cooperation.
IV. The Effects on IV-D Agencies of Running PFS with an Enhanced CSE Component
Ordinarily, CSE staff assign a low priority to working those cases that require great effort and do not promise a big payoff. By participating in PFS, the sites essentially had to work a group of cases that would have otherwise not received much attention, a major commitment by agency staff already burdened with large caseloads. The experience with running this enhanced CSE suggests that simplifying procedures and using PFS program staff to help move cases through the system were critical to the agencies’ capacity to handle increased workloads. Furthermore, the intensive working of the low-income caseload paid dividends in that it enabled staff to identify more quickly than they otherwise might have those NCPs who were employed and those who were inappropriate targets for enforcement. Finally, the PFS program boosted CSE staff morale because it gave a sense of political legitimacy to efforts to enforce the child support obligations of low-income NCPs by offering an alternative to incarceration or ineffectual seek-work orders.
Enhanced CSE, because it brings cases into the system that would otherwise be accorded low priority, does make more work for CSE staff, but the PFS program was able to work with the CSE agencies and the courts to mitigate some of those burdens. This cooperation was probably crucial to the sites’ success in implementing enhanced CSE. For instance, in most sites the courts agreed to block scheduling and group hearings that minimized the delay of processing more cases. In some sites, the courts agreed to less formal notice procedures that allowed hearings to be scheduled more quickly and that did not require the courts to respond with formal sanctions against those who did not respond. And most courts developed standard forms for ordering NCPs into the PFS program to minimize delays associated with paperwork.
In many ways, PFS program staff acted as an extra arm of the court to make the hearing process more efficient — for example, making home visits prior to the hearing date in order to boost show-up rates and conducting orientations for NCPs before the formal hearings so that they were prepared for what would happen, thus allowing judges and hearing officers to spend less time making sure that each NCP understood the process. Also, PFS program staff monitored the NCPs’ compliance with the court orders, so that noncompliant obligors could be selectively followed up by the courts.
Recent reforms of the federal and state public-assistance and child support systems increase the need for creative and successful approaches to CSE. With the likely introduction of time limits in public assistance, low-income families will increasingly have to rely on parents’ income, and the child support system is under great pressure to improve its performance. Until recently, many IV-D systems spent little effort on cases involving low-income obligors, believing that they offered little prospect of financial return. Thus, meeting the challenge of the new reforms will require careful thought as to the best ways to allocate the already strained resources of state and local CSE agencies. The operational experience of PFS suggests that current enforcement remedies — based largely on a view of the world more appropriate for higher-income families — are inadequate to address the underlying problem of ensuring that children living in poverty get as much support as they can from both parents.
The early lessons from PFS provide insights into ways to improve CSE administration. Future research results from the demonstration will address the issue of the longer-term effectiveness of the program in increasing the employment, earnings, and child support of the NCPs and their ability to participate consistently and effectively