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


The child support enforcement system is facing new challenges, many of them driven by recognition of the increasing importance of such support as family structures have changed. Further, the existing level of child support payments is low: Less than one-fourth of those entitled to payment are receiving what is due them. The child support system is working hard to establish the paternity of more of the children who are receiving welfare (and were born outside of marriage), to put legally binding support orders in place, and to use many new enforcement techniques to raise the level of support payments. This reform effort comes at a time when changes in national welfare policy — most importantly, a time limit on the receipt of federally funded cash welfare — makes the issue even more critical to poor families.

Welfare reform and a desire to keep welfare expenditures down have been a motivating force for action. In reality, however, the agencies involved have been hard-pressed to find effective ways to deal with low-income, unemployed parents who are legally obligated to pay support. Traditionally, agencies have often decided that these parents would not produce enough to be worth a major enforcement effort, and the available enforcement tools were not effective with this group. Ironically, even though low payment rates in welfare-related cases were one of the main reasons the public supported stronger child support enforcement, these cases have been among the most difficult to address, and low-income, unemployed noncustodial parents have often been neglected in daily support administration. Courts and child support enforcement agencies have felt they must choose between one of two ineffective options — ordering noncustodial parents to seek work or jailing these parents for contempt of the court order to pay support. As a consequence, enforcement efforts have often largely focused on parents for whom there is evidence of current income.

The Parents’ Fair Share (PFS) Demonstration tests the feasibility and effectiveness of a new enforcement option for child support agencies in the seven participating counties. Under PFS, courts and agencies can refer parents who fall within program eligibility rules (i.e., noncustodial parents who are linked to a public assistance case, unemployed or underemployed, and not up-to-date with their support payments) to employment and training, peer support, and mediation services and can offer special flexibility in child support administration. Because of the availability of this new option (which was intended to increase noncustodial parents’ employment and earnings, child support payments, and involvement with their children), agencies and the courts moved aggressively to determine the status of cases they had previously not considered a high priority for action.

This report is about what happened when agency staff started to review cases, identify eligible parents, and refer those parents to the program. In the course of this effort, which produced more than 5,000 cases appropriate for PFS, local staff learned much about the status of child support cases: For example, some noncustodial parents were working and had not reported their employment; the lives of others had changed in ways that made their existing support order inappropriate; and still others were unlocatable. Furthermore, the effort produced lessons relevant to the broader child support caseload about how to conduct what might be thought of as "outreach" to the caseload of poor parents who are behind in their payments. In sum, this report provides an up-close look at what for many jurisdictions will be a new and important aspect of enforcement.

Two other reports from the PFS Demonstration will be published in the near future: a qualitative research report on the lives, attitudes, and experiences of a sample of PFS participants and a report on PFS’s implementation experiences and early impacts on employment and child support. Together these reports will add greatly to our knowledge of the lives of low-income noncustodial parents and the challenges the child support system faces as it seeks to increase payments for children receiving public assistance.

Judith M. Gueron