University of Wisconsin–Madison

Child Support Demonstration Evaluation (CSDE)

The Child Support Demonstration Evaluation (CSDE) was a 10-year statewide randomized experimental evaluation conducted by IRP. The purpose was to understand the effects of a both transferring all of the child support collected on behalf of custodial parents and children receiving cash welfare directly to the parent and child, rather than the state retaining a portion of payment, and also disregarding child support receipt in calculating cash welfare eligibility and benefit amounts. Results indicated that the program enhanced the speed of paternity establishment, resulted in higher rates of payment by noncustodial parents, and provided custodial families with higher levels of economic support, all at no significant net cost to government.

The Policy Context

In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and gave states substantial flexibility in designing replacement programs. Under the old program rules, most states passed through to recipient families the first $50 of child support collected each month, and disregarded this amount in calculating AFDC benefits. Any child support above $50 was, however, retained by the state and federal governments. The new program, TANF, allowed states to set their own policies regarding the state’s share of child support payments (the federal government continued to retain its share). Under TANF rules, most states chose to retain the entire amount of child support collected, passing none of the money on to the custodial parent and children.

Under a federal waiver received in 1997, Wisconsin was allowed to implement a different policy as part of W-2, the state’s TANF program. Families were able to receive the full amount of monthly child support collected (“full pass-through”), and all of that child support income was ignored in the determination of W-2 eligibility (“full disregard”).

The CSDE Experimental Evaluation

The evaluation of the Wisconsin policy began shortly after the program itself went into operation in 1997. The central component of the CSDE was a random-assignment evaluation; most W-2 families received a full pass-through and disregard of monthly child support, but some child support was withheld from a randomly selected control group. This approach allowed evaluators to attribute any observed differences in outcomes between the two groups to the difference in the treatment of child support. The experimental evaluation and related research drew on a large, longitudinal database incorporating administrative data from several sources, and three waves of data from a longitudinal survey, the Survey of Wisconsin Works Families. The CSDE was completed in several phases, largely corresponding to experiment and policy changes.

The End of Random Assignment

Beginning July 1999, all new families entering W-2 received the full pass-through and disregard. Among families already receiving W-2, those cases previously assigned to the control group continued to receive a partial pass-through and disregard until July 2002. At that point all cases, new and old, began to receive the full pass-through and disregard. These changes defined two additional cohorts of families receiving the full pass-through and disregard—those entering during a time of transition, when some older cases still received a partial pass-through and disregard, and those entering during a time when all cases received the full pass-through and disregard.

The Nonexperimental Evaluations: Contexts for the Experimental Evaluation

In the CSDE, nonexperimental approaches were used to further explore potential effects of pass-through and disregard policy. The nonexperimental evaluations in the CSDE included four main components: three quantitative analyses that used both national and Wisconsin-specific data sources and an ethnographic study of fathers of children in W-2 families. Overall, the results of these analyses support the conclusion that increasing the pass-through and disregard will increase paternity establishment and payment and receipt of child support.

Broadening the Scope of CSDE Research

In addition to the experimental and nonexperimental evaluations, the CSDE included a range of related research drawing from the core administrative and survey data, from ethnographic and field research, and from specialized data collection.

After the CSDE

Wisconsin’s child support pass-through and disregard policy changed again in January 2006; the Federal waiver that permitted the CSDE expired, and the full-pass through was phased out. This change falls outside the scope of the CSDE. At the same time, Federal policy changed in ways that encourage other states to follow Wisconsin’s original innovative approach. The 2006 TANF reauthorization allowed states to pass-through and disregard the first $100 per month of child support for one child families, and $200 per month for larger families without reimbursing the Federal government for its share of the support. The results of the CSDE demonstrate the potential advantages of this policy.