Child Support Enforcement

IRP Reports

Steven T.Cook, 2015 [Available in PDF format: Report]
Steven Cook and Jennifer L. Noyes, 2011 [Available in PDF format: Report]
Yoonsook Ha, Maria Cancian, Daniel R. Meyer, and Eunhee Han, 2008

Despite the employment of an automated enforcement system, recent statistics show that only half of noncustodial parents pay the full amount of what they owe. Understanding the reasons for noncompliance is critical in improving the child support enforcement system and providing suitable financial support to custodial-parent families. In this report, we explore potential reasons why some orders are not fully paid despite the routinization of the enforcement system. We use a unique set of merged Wisconsin administrative data covering a six-year time period and examine noncustodial fathers in couples who had their first child support order in 2000 to document the potential reasons for noncompliance.

We found that the child support enforcement system generally works as intended. When fathers had earnings throughout the year and the earnings were more than $20,000, and when they also had no employer change or order change, about 85 percent paid the full amount of child support owed. Nearly all fathers who did not pay had unstable employment or earnings, and a significant minority of them was incarcerated.

David Pate, 2006

This report evaluates the extent of knowledge of custodial and noncustodial parents by race, gender, and geographic location about Wisconsin's pass-through and disregard of child support payments. Sixteen focus groups were conducted in seven counties, four urban and three rural, of custodial parents and noncustodial parents who received public benefits in Wisconsin. The intent of the research was to explore similarities and differences in perspectives and experiences across sites, and between mothers and fathers.

David Pate, 2006

This report builds on earlier work, and relied on face-to-face interviews with randomly selected fathers of children receiving W-2 benefits, followed, where possible, by an interview with the mother of one of the father’s children. This work again explores the level of knowledge about child support pass-through/disregard policy among parents receiving public assistance in Dane County. It is unique in that it explores the experiences, knowledge, and attitudes of couples–rather than focusing on results by gender–associated with W-2 and also allows for comparisons across and within races.

Jane Collins and Victoria Mayer, 2006

Wisconsin’s policy providing a full child support pass-through and disregard of child support payments in calculating eligibility offers a new source of income for W-2 families. It also requires that both custodial and noncustodial parents comply with new rules. This report investigates the effects of both changes, as well as how participants perceive the trade-offs. The researchers reviewed child support policy documents, and in three counties conducted short interviews with local child support administrators and longer ethnographic interviews with a stratified sample of 42 women. The interviews covered family transitions, work history, and changing sources of formal and informal income in an effort to determine how child support income and child support enforcement policies affect economic well-being and family structure.

Katherine A. Magnuson, 2006

This report considers the factors that influence how a father supports his noncustodial children, with attention both to fathers’ economic resources and to multiple-partner fertility. Data come from the Time, Love, Cash, Caring, and Children (TLC3) project, a longitudinal, qualitative study of 75 romantically involved couples who also participated in the Fragile Families survey. In 2002, at the time of the first survey, all couples had just had a child, and yearly data collection continued until the child was approximately 3 or 4 years old. The author considers the amount of money and goods that fathers provided for their noncustodial children from two perspectives.

Geoffrey L. Wallace, 2005

Are fertility decisions are responsive to the strength of child support enforcement efforts? This project uses individual-level data from the 2001 panel of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) along with state-level data on child support collection rates, welfare rules, and unemployment rates to assess whether the strength of state child support enforcement efforts has an effect on fertility and marriage among single women. The report finds little evidence that child support enforcement efforts have any effect on nonmarital fertility or marriage.

Judi Bartfeld, 2005

The notion that arrears have a deterrent effect on child support payments has been raised repeatedly in the qualitative literature, but there have only been limited efforts to examine this quantitatively. This report examines the relationship between child support arrearages owed to the state and subsequent compliance with ongoing support obligations. The author uses a framework that recognizes that the determinants of compliance differ for employed and nonemployed fathers and attempts to disentangle the effects of overall arrearages from the effects of having an obligation to pay birth-related costs (known as lying-in costs).

Ingrid E. Rothe, Yoonsook Ha, and Marya Sosulski, 2004

Over the past twenty years the child support system has undergone significant changes, fueled partly by state efforts to increase collections and partly by new requirements set by the federal government. Among these changes is an expanded set of tools designed to improve the enforcement of child support orders. The authors of this paper interviewed local officials and analyzed administrative data from the Wisconsin child support information system (known as KIDS) to better understand how the new techniques are implemented by county child support agencies and whether they contribute to increased child support collections.

Officials in four county child support agencies (Chippewa, Eau Claire, Racine, and Winnebago) were interviewed to determine how county staff make decisions about what enforcement actions to take and when to act. The four counties exhibited marked differences in organization of the enforcement process, many of which appeared to stem from differences in such factors as access to court time and relationship with other county agencies. In two counties staff members worked as teams and in the other two they worked as individuals. Similarly, in two counties they were specialists in particular enforcement actions and in two they were generalists who performed many different types of actions.

IRP Discussion Papers

Maria Cancian, Carolyn Heinrich, and Yiyoon Chung, 2009

Despite substantial technological improvements to the child support enforcement program, many single parents do not receive child support. Particularly for families whose incomes are below the poverty level, child support is frequently a vital financial resource. The federal government’s primary motivation for establishing the federal Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program was to recover the costs associated with public assistance payments to poor single-parent families by collecting payments from the noncustodial parents. In this study, we use variation in the birthing costs over time and across counties in Wisconsin to identify the effect of child support debt on nonresident fathers’ child support payments and formal earnings. Our results suggest that higher arrears, in themselves, substantially reduce both child support payments and formal earnings for the fathers and families that already likely struggle in securing steady employment and coping with economic disadvantage, a serious unintended consequence of child support policy.

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.

Patricia R. Brown, Steven T. Cook, and Lynn Wimer, 2005

Since the mid-1990s the State of Wisconsin has operated a voluntary paternity acknowledgment process, which allows the fathers of nonmarital children born in the state to voluntarily acknowledge their paternity by signing a notarized form, instead of going through a judicial hearing. The premise behind this program is that by reducing obstacles to establishing paternity the state can encourage unmarried fathers to increase their financial and nonfinancial participation in their children's lives. This report examines the relationship between the use of paternity acknowledgment by fathers and two measures of their subsequent participation in the responsibilities of child-rearing: paying child support and having the children live with them (as shown by placement decisions).

Harry J. Holzer, Paul Offner, and Elaine Sorensen, 2004

In this paper, we document the continuing decline in employment and labor force participation of black men between the ages of 16 and 34 who have a high school education or less. We explore the extent to which these trends can be accounted for in recent years by two fairly new developments: (1) the dramatic growth in the number of young black men who have been incarcerated and (2) strengthened enforcement of child support policies. We use micro-level data from the Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Groups, along with state-level data over time on incarceration rates and child support enforcement, to test these hypotheses. Our results indicate that post-incarceration effects and child support policies both contribute to the decline in employment activity among young black less-educated men in the last two decades, especially among those aged 25-34.

Maureen Pirog-Good and David H. Good, 1994

The NLSY data indicate that about 7.3 percent of teenage males become fathers and that very few of these fathers live with their children. Father absence and the concurrent increase in female-headed households are closely associated with the impoverishment of children. Most absent teen fathers never come into contact with the child support enforcement program, and the extent to which they financially support their children informally is not well understood. While the income of absent teen fathers is low in the teen years, it increases over time, as does the potential for collecting child support. Nevertheless, men who were absent teen fathers earn less in early adulthood than men who deferred parenting until age twenty or later and teen fathers who lived with their children. Early establishment of paternity and greater standardization in the treatment of adolescent fathers by the child support enforcement program are recommended. Further, the substantial and persistent income deficit experienced by adolescent fathers who live apart from their children raises an interesting dilemma. While children may benefit financially and psychosocially from living with two parents, the lower income of men who were absent teenage fathers may make them poor marital prospects. This raises doubts about the recent recommendations of some scholars that we should bring back the shotgun wedding.

Judi Bartfeld and Daniel R. Meyer, 1993

The authors examine the determinants of child support compliance in nonmarital child support cases in Wisconsin, focusing on the father's ability to pay and the stringency of the child support enforcement system. They find that tougher enforcement rules positively affect compliance rates. Higher incomes are associated with higher compliance rates, and lower incomes, with lower rates. The percentage of income that is owed in child support also has an effect on compliance. Orders which represent a high percentage of income relative to existing guidelines are associated with lower compliance rates. However, owing a low percentage of income only has an effect on compliance for fathers with very low incomes; for these fathers, obligating them to pay low amounts of support positively affects compliance. These results suggest that a father's to pay, in addition to his willingness to pay, determines the extent to which he fulfills his child support obligation. The authors conclude that to increase child support collections, we should increase both the earning power of noncustodial parents and the stringency of the enforcement system.

Irwin Garfinkel and Philip K. Robins, 1993

The 1984 Child Support Amendments and the 1988 Family Support Act increased the ability of state child support offices to enforce child support obligations. The authors estimate the impact of several provisions of these two pieces of legislation on child support payments and awards. They find that withholding child support payments from the wages of noncustodial parents, allowing paternity to be established until a child's eighteenth birthday, and advertising enforcement services lead to more money collected in child support, more (and higher) child support awards, and higher collection rates. Requiring child support to be paid through a third party and generous spending by states on their enforcement programs also positively affect payments and awards. Data are from the Child Support Supplement of the Current Population Survey

Maureen A. Pirog-Good, 1993

Between 1988 and 1991, variation in the amounts of child support awards across states declined, with the exception of awards for low-income obligors. Nevertheless, there remain enormous differences in the amount of support dictated by state child support guidelines. For low-income obligors, support awards in 1991 ranged between $25 and $327, while for the highest-income obligors they ranged between $616 and $1,607. This variation in awards was not found to result from differences in the cost of living across states. Hence the large differences in support awards across states for obligors in identical family and financial situations give rise to serious equity considerations and suggest the development of a federal standard for setting awards. Further, in many states, nominal and inflation-adjusted support awards declined between 1988 and 1991. Overall, nonresident parents do not pay a fair share of the costs of raising their children. Given that children now constitute the largest group of individuals living in poverty in the United States, emphasis should be placed on larger awards, expressing child support obligations as a percentage of income, and a child support assurance program.