Complicated Families and Their Policy Implications

IRP Reports

Marcia J. Carlson, Alicia G. VanOrman, and Kimberly J. Turner, 2012

[Available in PDF format: Report | PowerPoint Presentation]

Fathers' roles in family life have changed dramatically over the past fifty years. High and rising divorce rates, the growing proportion of births that occur outside of marriage, and the higher likelihood of children living with their mothers when their parents' union ends have resulted in a striking decline in the proportion of men living with their own biological children since the mid-1960s. In addition, mothers are increasingly likely to be employed outside the home, while fathers' roles have expanded from primarily that of the 'breadwinner' to include that of caregiver.

In this report, the authors: (1) Describe the prevalence of fathers' economic capacities and contributions and their level of direct involvement and interaction with children, comparing resident versus non-resident fathers; (2) Evaluate how fathers' economic capacities and contributions are linked to fathers' direct involvement for both resident and non-resident fathers; and (3) Analyze whether and how state-level child support effectiveness is associated with non-resident fathers' total child support payments and their direct involvement with children. They find important differences in how fathering plays out for resident versus non-resident fathers. Resident fathers experience a trade-off between their time in the labor market and their time directly involved with children. In contrast, for non-resident fathers, greater financial capabilities and contributions 'go together' with being involved in other ways with their children. Given the low economic resources of many non-resident fathers, this circumstance may create challenges for fathers to remain actively involved in their children's lives with respect to both money and time.

Maria Cancian and Daniel R. Meyer, 2010

[Available in PDF format: PowerPoint Presentation | Report]

Many nonresident parents provide informal and formal child support to their children who do not live with them. Although there is a significant body of research on formal child support, much less is known about informal support. More specifically, little is known about trends in informal support, especially whether informal support changes as family relationships evolve, for example when parents have children with new partners.

In this report, the authors examine the existence of, and trends in, informal support for resident mothers who were in the first cohort of TANF participants in Wisconsin. The authors find that informal support is fairly common at the beginning of the study period, but declines over time. Declines in informal support are more likely for mothers who have children with new partners. Difference-in-difference results suggest that fathers are less likely to provide support that is not child-specific when another father's children are added to the household.

This research complements other work examining how fathers respond to complicated families through the formal system. Because family complexity is becoming increasingly common, the policy response in the child support system and in other systems is quite important.

Maria Cancian and Daniel R. Meyer, with the assistance of Youseok Choi, 2006

We explore the effects of a full pass-through and disregard of child support payments on the marriage and cohabitation rates of mothers using data from the Wave 3 Survey of Wisconsin Works Families. Findings indicate that mothers who receive full pass-through and disregard are significantly less likely to cohabit with men who are not the father of their child(ren). The findings support the hypothesis that increased child support increases women's economic independence, reducing their incentive to cohabit with men who are not the father of their children. We found no evidence of an increase in marriage rates for parents receiving a full pass-through and disregard.

Maria Cancian and Daniel R. Meyer, 2006

In this paper the authors examine the extent of complications in child support cases in Wisconsin that are caused by multiple-partner fertility. Beyond documenting patterns of multiple-partner fertility in the broader population of families served by the child support system, the authors simulate the results of alternative policy regimes discuss the principles that might underlie alternative approaches. They consider implications for child support owed by noncustodial parents and due to custodial parents, and how this differs by family structure. They then use their analysis of the distribution of family structures and incomes in Wisconsin to simulate outcomes for these families under alternative policies.

Emma Caspar, 2006

In this report the author describes alternative policies used in other states concerning child support orders for complicated families, those in which one or both parents have had children with multiple partners. The information, collected through interviews with state officials, is used in the Wisconsin Simulation, below, to analyze the implications of alternative policies through a simulation model that estimates the effect of current and potential alternative policies for families in Wisconsin.

Tonya Brito, 2005

In this report the author examines alternative approaches to calculating child support in complicated families and finds that the analysis does not yield any clear answers regarding what alternative method is preferred. The analysis does suggest, however, a number of directions that states are following in this context. First, states are considering a broader range of relevant data when determining child support orders in complicated families. Second, some states have implemented provisions that seek to consider a parent’s support obligation to all their children in one unified proceeding. Application of formulaic guidelines will be difficult when more dependent children and sources of income are subject to the court’s consideration. In the end, these families’ situations may best be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Mei-Chen Hu and Daniel R. Meyer, 2003

Some observers have asserted that orders that are too high will discourage those who owe child support, and will result in lower payments. In this research, the authors find no evidence for this assertion. For the vast majority of cases in their data, fathers with higher orders make higher payments. This holds even after controlling for income. Orders above 35 percent of income are associated with lower compliance, which makes for a more active (and potentially more expensive) enforcement system, but the average amounts that are paid are higher. These results are generally consistent with a child support system in which most discretion has been taken away from those who owe support.

IRP Discussion Papers

Maria Cancian, Daniel R. Meyer, and Jennifer Roff, 2007

Single-parent families are economically vulnerable. Some child support policies have been aimed at improving the economic well-being of these families, while others have been focused on decreasing welfare costs. Since 1996, states have been free to decide how to treat child support when it is paid on behalf of a welfare participant. States decide both how much child support income to ignore in the calculation of benefits (the disregard) and whether to send a separate child support check to the participant (the pass-through). Disregard and pass-through policies have potential impacts on economic well-being and on governmental costs, but little research has focused on their effects. This paper uses variation in child support disregard and pass-through policy across states and years to estimate whether these policies are associated with paternity establishment, child support collections, and the average dollar amount of child support collected, as reflected in state-level administrative data. We find that the disregard is positively associated with paternity establishment in all models, and is positively associated with collections in two of the four models examined. The pass-through has insignificant, or negative, effects.

Daniel R. Meyer, Maria Cancian, and Steven Cook, 2005

Multiple-partner fertility might not be a significant policy issue if the number of children affected was fairly small. However, the authors show here that family complexity resulting from multiple-partner fertility is quite common, and has important implications for understanding child support outcomes and for designing and evaluating welfare and family policy. Using a unique set of merged administrative data, this paper provides the first comprehensive documentation of levels of family complexity among a broad sample of welfare recipients. The authors examine the extent to which complexity is associated with systematically different child support outcomes and outline the implications of family complexity for policy.