Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. A. Defining PFS Eligibility

05/01/1998

The basic eligibility framework for the PFS Demonstration was set by the Family Support Act, which authorized a test of employment services for the NCPs of children receiving AFDC who were unable to pay child support because of unemployment. But as MDRC and sites grappled with the details of program design, questions arose — some small and some posing larger issues. A few were decided based on the logistics of program operation: for example, sites uniformly imposed a rule that NCPs had to live close enough to program services to participate. For most sites, this translated into a requirement that NCPs live within the county, though in a few cases NCPs with nearby addresses just over county borders were allowed into the demonstration.

Exhibit 9 presents some eligibility criteria that posed larger issues. The first two involve choices about how early in the NCPs’ interaction with the CSE system the PFS intervention is available. The second two arose because of a desire to recognize the economic instability in the lives of CPs and NCPs living below or near poverty.

The first row of Exhibit 9 shows how nonpayment of support was defined. Site practices reflected the belief that a major response such as PFS was best targeted at NCPs with more serious and longer-lasting nonpayment problems. As such, sites either developed specific definitions for the demonstration (for example, no payments for a set period, usually a month or more) or relied on the working rules-of-thumb that frontline CSE staff use as they review their caseloads and consider whether to schedule a contempt hearing.

One of the more complex issues was how to handle newly established paternities where a support order is about to be set. Even if the NCPs have serious employment problems, there is not yet a "nonpayment problem." The second row of Exhibit 9 shows how sites resolved this eligibility issue. Some sites (Hampden and Kent counties) chose to make this group a priority. Other sites found it difficult to introduce the PFS Demonstration research procedures into the paternity and order establishment process and thus excluded these cases. But even in these sites, staff recognized the advantage of helping people before large arrearages mounted.

Exhibit 9

Defining PFS Eligibility

Treatment of Key Issues

 

Duval County, FL (Jacksonville)

 

Hampden County, MA (Springfield)

 

Kent County, MI (Grand Rapids)

 

Los Angeles County, CA (Los Angeles)

 

Mercer County, NJ (Trenton)

 

Montgomery County, OH (Dayton)

 

Shelby County, TN (Memphis)

 

Nonpayment

 

No special definition for PFS; identified potential referrals off regular court docket

Most referrals from newly established paternities where NCP listed no or limited income on his financial statement

NCP has not paid support within last 4 weeks, or has paid less than 75 percent of what was owed within last 60 days

NCP has not paid support in 30 to 60 days

Standard definition used by Probation Department enforcement staff

NCP has not paid child support in at least 5 weeks

NCP has not paid in past five months

Newly established paternity and NCP reports being unable to pay support

 

Eligible

Eligible

Eligible under special exemption from nonpayment rule if NCP acknowledges paternity at hospital and special expedited procedures are followed

Eligible

Eligible

Not eligible

Initially not eligible, but restriction eliminated near end of sample intake

Underemployed

 

Eligible if earning less than $5.30 per hour for 40-hour week

Eligible if earning $200 or less per week or receiving unemployment benefits

Eligible if working at a job that does not provide enough income to meet his obligations

Eligible if working less than 30 hours per week

Eligible if working at less than $7 per hour and less than 20 hours per week

Eligible if working at a job that does not pay enough to support himself as well as required child support or if job is temporary

Eligible if working at temporary job, job paying less than $5 per hour or working less than 40 hours per week

CP not currently receiving AFDC, but NCP owes arrearages to state and continuing child support obligation

 

Eligible

Eligible

Eligible

Initially not eligible, but starting in early 1996 was eligible

Eligible

Eligible if CP in one case linked to NCP is receiving AFDC or NCP owes AFDC arrears of more than $150

Initially, CP in all NCP child support cases had to be receiving AFDC or have AFDC arrearage, but this restriction was later eliminated

Special site exclusions

 

None

None

None

Originally, NCPs had to live in areas within county targeted for aid following 1992 civil unrest; later expanded to entire county; NCP must be literate, legally able to work in the United States, and (early in program) able to speak English

None

Must be age 18 or over

Initially, NCP had to be age 45 or under, but restriction was eliminated near end of sample intake

Two other issues reflected the instability of NCPs’ and CPs’ lives, especially movements by NCPs into and out of jobs and by CPs onto and off welfare. As to job instability, low-income NCPs often moved back and forth between unemployment and low-wage/low-hour jobs, which — though technically not unemployment — clearly reflected underemployment. Sites also recognized that PFS could be an appropriate option for NCPs who were working at a short-term, temporary job at the time of the review of child support status. Thus, sites gradually moved from a strict eligibility requirement of unemployment toward a definition of underemployment that reflected the realities of their labor market, as shown in the third row of Exhibit 9. Some imposed maximum wage and/or hour cutoffs below which an NCP could be referred to the program as underemployed.

Other sites decided that NCPs could be referred to the program if their earnings were not sufficient to allow them to support themselves and pay the required child support or did not allow them to meet their "obligations." This approach might seem circular since child support obligations are — in theory — to be set as a percentage of income using the guidelines, but in practice the approach can make sense for several reasons. Child support obligations are not adjusted downward in most jurisdictions unless NCPs petition for such a change in a proceeding separate from a review for nonpayment, and the process is often complicated and time-consuming, leading few NCPs to go this route. There are often rules allowing or requiring courts to impute earnings when NCPs with a work history are unemployed. Further, most jurisdictions require that a change in NCP circumstances be substantial and in some sense permanent, rules that lessen the chance downward modifications will be made. Finally, as mentioned earlier in this report, several versions of state guidelines for child support can leave NCPs with very low incomes and insufficient remaining income to cover the necessities of life.

The frequency of movements of CPs onto and off public assistance also complicated the definition of PFS eligibility. Most of those working in child support are conscious of movement of some CSE cases from public-assistance to non-public-assistance status over time. The neat distinction drawn by PFS’s authorizing legislation (cases in which the children and CP are receiving AFDC at some point in time) does not reflect the reality of the world of either public assistance or child support. Thus, the PFS eligibility rules (shown in the fourth row of Exhibit 9) were expanded to include NCPs in child support cases in which the CPs were not receiving AFDC at the time of the PFS referral but (1) there were minor children for whom current support was owed and (2) arrearages owed the state had built up because of past nonpayment of support while the CPs received welfare and/or medical assistance.