The goal of the Child Support Enforcement System is to ensure that children in single-parent families receive financial support from their nonresident parent (most often fathers); however, fewer than half of mothers due support receive any. Over the last 40 years, states have enacted a series of more stringent and punitive measures to increase payments from nonresident fathers, including unrealistically high child support obligations, charging Medicaid-covered birthing costs to fathers, not allowing modification of orders during incarceration, imposition of high interest rates, and incarceration for non-payment of support. In addition, many states keep much of the child support collected on behalf of mothers receiving public assistance in order to recoup these costs, creating a disincentive for fathers to pay support. As a result of such policies, and the overall poor employment prospects of many nonresident fathers, child support arrears (the accumulation of unpaid support) have grown to over $114 billion, with 70% of these arrears owed by fathers with very low incomes. Besides being uncollectable, arrears may also reduce fathers’ employment, increase risk of incarceration, and reduce support for and contact with children. While many of the policies discussed above may contribute to arrears accumulation, no study has explicitly examined such policies. In this study, we explore the associations of 10 state-level child support enforcement policies with the accumulation of arrears among a sample of children with nonresident fathers.
We link a unique database (collected by our team) of 10 child support enforcement policies that vary by state and over time (1998-2015) with longitudinal population-based data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), which follows 5,000 children born in urban areas b/w 1998 and 2000 over 15 years. We estimate the associations of these policies, individually and in various combinations, with the accumulation of arrears among nonresident fathers across all follow-up surveys of the FFCWS, when children are 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15 years old, controlling for relevant individual, family, and state-level characteristics, as well as state and individual fixed effects (N=9000 repeated observations).
We find that among all nonresident fathers, arrears grow from approximately $350 to over $5,500 between years 1 and 15. However, among nonresident fathers reporting any arrears (approx 1/3 of fathers across all waves), child support arrears are much higher, growing from $3400 at year 1 to nearly $20,000 by year 15. Multivariate analyses suggest that fathers living in states with higher interest rates, automatic application of interest, and retroactive orders have higher arrears; while those living in states allowing self-support reserves and minimum orders have lower arrears.
Our results point to specific child support enforcement policies that contribute to the growth of child support debt among nonresident fathers and provide evidence for how states could reduce arrears for this vulnerable group. Next steps include exploring how states combine such policies and which combinations of policies are most salient, and identifying which groups of fathers are particularly at risk.