Abstract: Testing a New Approach to Serving Noncustodial Parents Who Are behind in Their Child Support Payments (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Testing a New Approach to Serving Noncustodial Parents Who Are behind in Their Child Support Payments

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Maria Cancian, PhD, Dean, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Daniel Meyer, PhD, Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin - Madison, WI
Robert Wood, PhD, Senior Fellow; Director of Youth and Family Research, Mathematica Policy Research, Princeton, NJ
Background and Purpose. Child support has the potential to be an important income source for economically vulnerable families, but fewer than half of those due support receive the full amount owed. The current approach is generally to threaten and then punish noncustodial parents (NCPs) who do not pay in full. The National Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED) was designed to test an alternative in which case management, employment, and parenting services were provided, and a different approach to child support enforcement was used. This paper reports the main impacts in child support, employment, and parenting.

Methods: Over 10,000 NCPs with difficulty meeting their child support obligations were enrolled 2013 - 2016; half were randomly assigned to receive extra services as part of CSPED while the other half received regular services. Data were collected from a baseline survey, a follow-up survey about one year later, and administrative records.  Participants were, on average, quite disadvantaged. Only 55% had worked in the month prior to enrollment; average earnings among workers were below the poverty threshold. About one-third had more than a high school education. Most (65%) had been incarcerated. Most (62%) had children with more than one partner. Regression-adjusted comparisons between the extra-services and regular-services groups are used to estimate impacts.

Results: CSPED reduced current child support orders by $15-$16/month, consistent with efforts to right-size orders for low-earning NCPs. This coincided with an even smaller ($4-$6/month) and less robust reduction in child support payments. CSPED did not improve child support compliance, the outcome used to operationalize CSPED’s central goal of increasing reliable child support.  However, CSPED substantially improved NCP’s level of satisfaction with child support services (68% agreed/strongly agreed they were satisfied with services, relative to 46% for those receiving regular services). This is an important achievement, potentially consequential given evidence that NCP’s negative experiences with the child support program contribute to nonpayment.  CSPED had no effect on the main measures of participants’ employment and small effects on earnings in the first year.  CSPED increased NCP’s sense of responsibility for children, as reflected in their attitudes about the importance of noncustodial parents being involved in their children’s lives and supporting them financially.  A benefit-cost analysis estimated that over a two-year period, CSPED benefited NCPs, their ex-partners, and their children, but costs for the government outweighed these benefits. When extrapolating the benefits over a longer period, reasonable assumptions suggest that the overall benefits of CSPED would outweigh its costs.

Conclusion: The evaluation suggests that the potential exists for child support agencies to lead broader interventions, incorporating components beyond child support services alone, aimed at helping unemployed/underemployed NCPs to increase the reliability of their financial support for their children. Results suggest these efforts can improve NCP’s attitudes towards the child support program and sense of responsibility for their children, but progress in improving the regular payment of child support will be challenging.