The National Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED), a demonstration project designed to identify more effective child support policies, was evaluated by a team of researchers at IRP. Sponsored by the federal Office for Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), CSPED programs were implemented in eight states from 2012 to 2017. IRP conducted the evaluation with colleagues at Mathematica Policy Research and the UW Survey Center, and in collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. The evaluation included an implementation analysis, a report on the characteristics and situations of the over 10,000 CSPED participants, as well as an impact analysis based on a rigorous random assignment design, and a benefit-cost analysis.
Motivation for CSPED
Most children in the United States will spend at least some time living apart from one of their parents. The poverty gap between one- and two-parent families has contributed to calls to strengthen child support policy as a way to reduce poverty and increase the income of single-parent families.
However, many noncustodial parents struggle to meet their child support obligations. Whether noncustodial parents are providing all that can be expected or could provide more is difficult to ascertain without knowing something about their life circumstances.
Unfortunately, research on noncustodial parents who are behind in paying child support is quite limited, and we know relatively little about their earnings, barriers to employment, or the complexity of their relationships with their former partners or their children.
Child support is a critical financial resource for children living apart from one of their parents. A successful system must both enforce and enable noncustodial parents’ contributions and requires effective policies to encourage noncustodial parent employment.
OCSE launched CSPED to examine the effectiveness of a policy alternative aimed at increasing the reliable payment of child support. CSPED demonstration activities commenced in fall 2012, when OCSE competitively awarded grants to eight child support agencies. The demonstration and its evaluation sought to inform critical national debates about how best to serve noncustodial parents and their children.
Grantees and Programs
OCSE awarded grants totaling $6.2 million to child support agencies in eight states to link parents with services and take part in an evaluation of the programs. These states were as follows:
- South Carolina
Grantees designated 18 implementation sites, ranging from one to five counties per grantee (see the map).
The demonstration began with a one-year planning period, from October 2012 through September 2013. Grantees provided services starting in October 2013, and service delivery concluded with the end of the demonstration period in September 2017.
CSPED programs provided
- Integrated case management;
- Employment-oriented services that included job placement and retention;
- Fatherhood/parenting activities using peer support; and
- Enhanced child support services, including the review and appropriate adjustment of child support orders.
CSPED Impact Evaluation Approach
CSPED researchers utilized a random assignment design in which eligible noncustodial parents were randomly assigned into treatment and control groups, in order to gauge a program’s impact on participants.
Grantees enrolled participants in the demonstration over a three-year period, from October 2013 through September 2016. Half of the demonstration’s 10,161 enrollees were randomly assigned to receive CSPED services. The other half were assigned to a control group and did not receive extra services.
Evaluation Team and Reports
The CSPED evaluation team examined the characteristics of noncustodial parent participants, program implementation, program impacts, and benefit versus cost. Four reports noted below detail their work.
More than 10,000 noncustodial parents who either were or were likely to become behind in child support payments and had employment difficulties participated in CSPED.
Participant characteristics included
- Nearly all were men;
- Average age was 35 years;
- Nearly 70 percent had at most a high school education;
- Only 14 percent were currently married and about half had never married; and
- Most participants identified as non-Hispanic black or African American (40 percent), non-Hispanic white (33 percent), or Hispanic or Latino (22 percent).
A report on participant characteristics describes the complex situations—balancing responsibilities to both resident and nonresident children and navigating co-parenting relationships with multiple other partners, often without stable employment or housing—many noncustodial parents managed.
Developing programs and policies to appropriately respond to these complexities is a challenge—and also was one of the primary motivations for the CSPED intervention itself.
CSPED programs were implemented using a child support-led model. Child support agencies provided leadership, recruited participants, provided child support services, and acted as fiscal agents for the grant. Each child support agency partnered with one or more community service providers for employment and parenting services, who were crucial to CSPED’s implementation. Grantee structures for delivering services varied.
CSPED services were provided from October 2013 through September 2017. On average and across all categories of service, participants assigned to the CSPED extra services group received about 22 hours of services. Most services were delivered in the first six months following a participant’s enrollment. About one-half of services were delivered individually and one-half were delivered in a group setting. The time allocation across each service category, average hours per service category, and mode of service delivery varied across grantees.
Throughout the demonstration, CSPED grantees and their partners grappled with a complex array of challenges.
These challenges included
- developing partnerships and meshing different organizational cultures;
- reorienting child support staff and systems toward helping low-income noncustodial parents meet their child support obligation and obtain employment;
- recruiting noncustodial parents to enroll in a child support-led, service-oriented program such as CSPED;
- delivering services across different agencies;
- addressing participants’ complex barriers to employment; and
- keeping participants engaged in services.
The successes and challenges experienced by CSPED grantees offer important insights into strategies from which future programs serving similar populations can learn, adapt, and innovate.
These lessons learned include the importance of
- investing in strong partnerships and communication systems;
- drawing on strong leaders with a commitment to facilitating a cultural shift towards a customer-oriented approach within child support agencies;
- staffing programs with employees who support CSPED’s goals, and hiring and retaining a sufficient number of staff to manage large and challenging caseloads;
- developing services that take into account the substantial barriers to employment faced by the target population; and
- designing services to promote sustained participant engagement.
CSPED Program Impacts
The CSPED impact evaluation results are based on a comparison of outcomes between these two groups, drawing on data from administrative records and surveys administered at enrollment and one year later. The impact report describes key outcomes related to noncustodial parents’ (1) child support orders, payments and compliance, as well as attitudes toward the child support program; (2) work and earnings; (3) sense of responsibility for their children.
Results from the impact analysis show that the program led to modest declines in child support orders (consistent with “right-sizing” these orders), and even smaller reductions in payments. While there was no significant change in child support compliance, CSPED resulted in major improvements in noncustodial parents’ attitudes towards the program. There was some evidence of increases in earnings, but not in employment. Noncustodial parents’ sense of responsibility to their children also increased.
The evaluation suggests that the potential exists for child support agencies to lead broader interventions, incorporating components beyond child support services alone, aimed at helping unemployed and underemployed noncustodial parents to increase the reliability of their financial support for their children. Results suggest these efforts can improve noncustodial parents’ attitudes towards the child support program and sense of responsibility for their children, and reduce punitive enforcement with bigger impacts on right-sizing orders than on reducing payments.
CSPED Benefits and Costs
The CSPED benefit-cost report summarizes program costs and benefits to the extent possible, and thus offers insight about the magnitude of the CSPED costs relative to the magnitude of the benefits. Both the benefits and costs are estimated by comparing the benefits and costs of providing CSPED extra services relative to providing regular services.
As described in the report, CSPED benefited noncustodial parents, custodial parents, and children, but costs for the government outweighed these benefits. When extrapolating the benefits over a longer period, reasonable assumptions suggest that the overall benefits of CSPED would outweigh its costs.