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Exploring the Long-Term Effects of Child Support

Since the establishment of the Child Support Enforcement Program in 1975, child support policy has played a central role in improving the economic circumstances of children living apart from one of their parents. Prior studies have documented the policy’s positive effects on family economic wellbeing at the time of receipt; however, little work has examined the effects of child support receipt as a child on economic outcomes in adulthood. This report addresses this gap. We test whether adults who received support as children have higher earnings; are more likely to be employed; have lower public program participation; receive less in public benefits; and are less likely to have an open child support case than those who did not receive child support or received very little.

The current project takes a two-study approach, using different analytic approaches, and analyzing two related but distinct data sources with complementary strengths: the Wisconsin Child Support Demonstration Evaluation (CSDE) and the Wisconsin Court Record Data (WCRD). The first study examines children in the CSDE, a large-scale random assignment experiment of the treatment of child support for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients in Wisconsin in 1997-2000. The sample includes children in the evaluation data whose mothers fell into one of two subgroups: those who received full child support payment or those who received only partial support during periods of benefit receipt. Because assignment to the comparison groups was random, simple comparisons of outcomes between the groups are appropriate. The second study examines children in the WCRD, which consists of cases coming to family court in 21 Wisconsin counties during 1989-1992 that have child support potential. We compare children of mothers who received $480 or less during the first two years of their order to those who received more than $480. We also compare mothers who received less than 75% of what was owed to those who received at least 75%. We use Propensity Score Matching (PSM) methods that attempt to make the groups similar in all ways except the amount of support received. For both studies, we examine five outcomes in the State of Wisconsin’s administrative records, all measured in 2019: (1) the level of the young adult’s earnings; (2) whether the young adult is employed; (3) whether the young adult receives the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); (4) the amount of SNAP benefits received; and (5) whether the young adult has an active case in the child support records. We conduct multivariate regression analyses to test the hypotheses.

Across both studies, we find evidence of a statistically significant increase in adult earnings associated with child support receipt. In Study 1, child support receipt was not associated with employment status as adults. In Study 2, both child support receipt and compliance were associated with adult employment status. However, there is less consistent evidence of results in terms of examining SNAP participation, the amount of SNAP benefits, and having a child support case as an adult. Study 1 shows some evidence that those in the full-support group were less likely to receive benefits and received lower benefit amounts, but these were not consistent across samples. In Study 2, only one of the sixteen models for SNAP use or benefit amounts is statistically significant. We find no relationship between child support as a child and having an open child support case as an adult. Our findings highlight that child support receipts can have important long-term outcomes. This suggests that even for noncustodial parents facing barriers, a child support order (at an appropriate level) may be beneficial. Child support can provide critical economic support to otherwise financially vulnerable families. The returns may be even greater than typically estimated, given the long-term impacts.


Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Children, Children General, CSDE, Economic Support, Food & Nutrition, Food Assistance, Means-Tested Programs, Related Social Policies, WI Administrative Data Core