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


The Parents’ Fair Share (PFS) Demonstration was designed by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) to assist unemployed NCPs of children receiving welfare in securing employment, paying child support, and participating more fully as parents. The program was conceived in response to the 1988 Family Support Act’s authorization of a demonstration under the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) Program to provide services to unemployed NCPs of children receiving welfare who are unable to meet their child support obligations.

As shown in Exhibit 1, PFS offers employment and training services, together with peer support groups and mediation designed to strengthen parent-child bonds and to reinforce NCPs’ sense of obligation to pay support. Participants in the program usually have their monthly child support order reduced to zero or some small amount (often $50, the amount of child support that custodial parents (CPs) receiving AFDC were allowed to keep) while they are active in program services, but are also subject to much closer monitoring of the payment status of their case and their efforts to find work. For their part, PFS participants are expected to cooperate with the child support enforcement system, report employment and have their order raised appropriately, and make regular child support payments as soon as they are working.

The seven sites in the PFS Demonstration are Duval County (Jacksonville), Florida; Hampden County (Springfield), Massachusetts; Kent County (Grand Rapids), Michigan; Los Angeles County, California; Mercer County (Trenton), New Jersey; Montgomery County (Dayton), Ohio; and Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee. The sites all contain a middle- to large-size city, with Los Angeles being one of the nation’s largest cities. Each site has developed a distinctly different CSE system, with different emphases and priorities, as well as varying degrees of effectiveness.

Exhibit 1

Parents’ Fair Share Program Model

  • Employment and training. The centerpiece of Parents’ Fair Share programs is a group of activities designed to help participants secure long-term, stable employment at a wage level that will allow them to support themselves and their children. Since noncustodial parents vary in their employability levels, sites are strongly encouraged to offer a variety of services, including job search assistance and opportunities for education and skills training. In addition, since it is important to engage participants in income-producing activities quickly to establish the practice of paying child support, sites are encouraged to offer opportunities for on-the-job training, paid work experience, and other activities that mix skills training or education with part-time employment.
  • Enhanced child support enforcement. A primary objective of Parents’ Fair Share is to increase support payments made on behalf of children living in single-parent welfare households. The demonstration will not succeed unless increases in participants’ earnings are translated into regular child support payments. Although a legal and administrative structure already exists to establish and enforce child support obligations, it is critical for demonstration programs to develop new procedures, services, and incentives in this area. These include steps to expedite the establishment of paternity and child support awards and/or flexible rules that allow child support orders to be reduced while noncustodial parents participate in Parents’ Fair Share.
  • Peer support. MDRC’s background research and the pilot phase experience suggest that employment and training services by themselves will not lead to changed attitudes and regular child support payment patterns for all participants. Education, support, and recognition may be needed as well. Thus, demonstration programs are expected to provide regular support groups for participants. The purpose of this component is to inform participants about their rights and obligations as noncustodial parents, to encourage positive parental behavior and sexual responsibility, to strengthen participants’ commitment to work, and to enhance participants’ life skills. The component is built around a curriculum, known as Responsible Fatherhood, that was supplied by MDRC. The groups may also include recreation activities, "mentoring" arrangements using successful Parents’ Fair Share graduates, or planned parent-child activities.
  • Mediation. Often disagreements between custodial and noncustodial parents about visitation, household expenditures, lifestyles, child care, and school arrangements — and the roles and actions of other adults in their children’s lives — influence child support payment patterns. Thus, demonstration programs must provide opportunities for parents to mediate their differences using services modeled on those now provided through many family courts in divorce cases.