Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. I. CSE Reform: A Middle-Class Paradigm

05/01/1998

Although advances in CSE techniques have been driven to a large extent by the desire to reduce welfare spending, they have proven to be best suited for identification and location of NCPs who are stably employed and housed, with income and assets. PFS research reveals that while some of the NCPs in welfare-related cases do in fact fit this profile, others live at the margins of society. Many PFS participants have sporadic work histories, characterized by frequent job changes. Some have no fixed place of residence, living in a succession of relatives’ and friends’ homes. Understanding how these NCPs’ lives differ from the norm is key to successfully adapting CSE practices to reach them.

The importance of NCPs’ socioeconomic status can be illustrated by looking at the problem of location. Parent location services that establish links to information sources such as credit bureaus, tax authorities, employment security agencies, and motor vehicle bureaus work only for NCPs who earn a regular income or own assets. Moreover, these automated systems cannot operate in "real time" because of lags in the reporting of information. Thus, they are effective only when NCPs stay put long enough for the records to reflect their current circumstances.

To a large extent, unemployed low-income men live outside many of the systems on which CSE-related information-gathering depends. When they find work, they tend to hold onto those jobs for shorter periods of time than their higher-income counterparts, frustrating the IV-D system’s attempts to keep track of them. Further, they are much less likely to be tied to other government institutions than higher-income NCPs or low-income women. Experience from PFS suggests, for example, that unemployed low-income men are much less likely to receive public assistance or other social services or to participate in government-funded employment programs than are their female partners. Thus, reforms that focus on increasing and speeding up the IV-D system’s access to public and private databases may be irrelevant to locating many low-income men. Indeed, the most reliable source of information about unemployed low-income NCPs’ current status may be the family and friends of the NCPs or the custodial parents (CPs) themselves.

Besides making them hard to locate, the lack of stability in many unemployed low-income NCPs’ lives renders problematic application of the usual standards for determining appropriate award levels. For instance, state guidelines that fix awards based on a proportion of income assume a steady income over time, punctuated at most by only brief periods of unemployment. But periodic unemployment may be an unavoidable fact of life for many low-income NCPs, especially if they are men of color facing job discrimination in inner cities with weak job markets. For them, imputing steady earnings — even at a low wage — can dramatically overstate their "potential income." The difficulty of determining potential income may be greatest among unemployed low-income NCPs; some are in the midst of temporary spells of unemployment and low earnings, while others will suffer through long periods of poverty.

The use of state income guidelines to determine award levels may not make adequate provision for those cases in which NCPs are truly destitute. Many PFS participants complain that the award levels mandated by the guidelines are unrealistically high, and that after child support is deducted they do not have enough to live on. While some PFS participants acknowledged that they did not make regular support payments, they claimed to make occasional cash contributions or to help in other ways, by buying food, diapers, and other necessities, as their cash flow permitted. The fact that direct payments to CPs on welfare are treated as fraud, or that in-kind contributions are not counted by the IV-D system toward support, is widely viewed by these NCPs as inequitable.

The IV-D agencies participating in PFS tried to respond to these concerns in a variety of ways. Existing awards for PFS participants were either reduced or suspended as long as they complied with program requirements; and procedures for upward or downward modification of awards in response to changes in the NCPs’ employment circumstances were streamlined. Other areas of concern, however, such as treatment of accumulated arrearages and in-kind contributions, were beyond the scope of this project.

In sum, welfare-related child support cases present special challenges for IV-D agencies. Despite efforts to promote the enforcement of all cases, those in which the obligors have no discernible employment or assets are not considered a high priority because they offer little prospect of return and are labor- and time-intensive as well. This is especially true when the caseworkers carry a huge caseload, as in all of the PFS sites. But in giving short shrift to AFDC-related cases, the IV-D agencies sacrifice their ability to distinguish between the "unwilling" and the "unable" or to identify those obligors against whom enforcement is simply not appropriate.

Chronically unemployed or underemployed NCPs also present a challenge to CSE policies designed to standardize support payment levels. Reforms such as state guidelines on award levels and practices such as the imputing of income were in large part a response to historic abuses, and in the case of most obligors they work reasonably well. But the experience of the PFS sites suggests that when dealing with NCPs who are living on the fringes of society, some flexibility on the part of the IV-D system in terms of setting payment levels, imputing income, and implementing modification procedures may be appropriate.

At the policy level, investing resources to locate and enforce appropriately against the most disadvantaged NCPs goes against the national trend toward standardization and mechanization of enforcement. But at the ground level, a more individualized and flexible approach is not entirely inconsistent with current practices. We found that line staff in PFS sites still exercise a certain degree of discretion, even in jurisdictions where computerized systems are designed to prompt caseworkers to take specific measures depending on the status of the case. And in those sites where staff do not have automated tickler lists, the potential for individual variation is even greater. We also observed CSE staff working with NCPs who appeared to be trying to meet their obligation, giving them some leeway because of their good faith efforts. These findings suggest that those who work in the IV-D system want to be able to deal more flexibly with unemployed low-income obligors.