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Who Is Not Paying Child Support?

In response to a sense that some noncustodial parents were able to pay child support but unwilling to do so, the child support enforcement system has been strengthened over the past four decades in an attempt to make payments nondiscretionary and automatic. But, these administrative tools, which largely address payments from formal earnings, will not be effective if the issue is an inability to pay support. In this report, our primary question is whether noncompliance with child support orders is associated with factors related to an inability to pay support versus whether the child support program is not collecting from those who appear able to pay.

Our sample is drawn from Wisconsin Court Record Data—a sample of child support-related cases filed in 21 Wisconsin counties—and the Kids Information Data System (KIDS), a statewide child support information system. We also draw from other government administrative data sources, including the state Department of Corrections and the Milwaukee County Jail. We conduct a variety of interrelated descriptive analyses, comparing nonpayers and full payers (defined as paying at least 90% of what was owed), and looking at the characteristics of nonpayers in greater detail.

We find that about half the fathers (47%) paid their full order, with 35% paying part of the amount and 19% paying nothing. Unstable employment and annual earnings less than $20,000 were both common among noncustodial fathers and were both closely tied to nonpayment. Incarceration was also closely tied to nonpayment. Additional analyses show that fathers with labor market difficulties are typically associated with mothers who also have labor market difficulties, suggesting that not requiring payments from some fathers would likely be consequential for the economic well-being of their children.

The primary policy implication from these descriptive analyses is that enhancements to the child support enforcement system are unlikely to have large effects on payments because the primary problems are related to unstable employment, low earnings, and incarceration. Noncustodial fathers who have unstable employment or who had been incarcerated may require services to improve their capacity to meet their child support obligations.


Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Orders & Payments, WI Administrative Data Core


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