Abstract: How Much Child Support Should We Expect from Low-Income Fathers? (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

How Much Child Support Should We Expect from Low-Income Fathers?

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Lisa Vogel, MSW, Researcher, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Leslie Hodges, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Background and Purpose. Decades of policy efforts have strengthened the enforcement mechanisms available to child support agencies; yet, many child support obligations remain unpaid or are not paid in full. In 2015, one-third of custodial parents owed child support received none, and another quarter received only partial payments (Grall 2018). In 2017, total past-due support owed exceeded $117 billion (OCSE, 2018). Given that noncustodial parents with low incomes owe much of this unpaid support, some have argued that setting orders at high levels relative to earnings might be counterproductive.

Recent federal changes to child support guidelines reflect these concerns by requiring states to take into consideration the noncustodial parent’s ability to pay when setting child support orders [45 C.F.R. § 302.56(c)(1)(ii)]. Although the new ruling is clear that states must consider the economic circumstances of the noncustodial parent and make adjustments for low-income parents when setting orders, the rule leaves states to determine how much child support can or should be expected from low-income fathers. In order to better understand how states are interpreting this new ruling and implications for order amounts, we conduct a cross-state comparison of recent changes to states low-income guidelines.

Methods. We use a mixed-methods approach to examine how states are considering and implementing changes to low-income guidelines following the recent ruling, and to assess how different interpretations of the guidelines affect orders for low-income payers. The qualitative component includes analysis of state reports on guidelines’ reviews and interviews with child support staff to inform our understanding of whether and how states have enacted changes to guidelines following the new federal rule. We use quantitative analysis to calculate child support orders for several types of low-income cases consistent with states’ low-income guidelines.

Results. Factors states considered included, among others, noncustodial parent earnings relative to various multipliers of the federal poverty guideline; job types, hours worked, and labor market conditions; incarceration; custodial parent income; and child-related expenditures. Preliminary results indicate variation in the extent to which states took these factors into account when considering guidelines changes; the extent to which changes were implemented; and state interpretation of the guidance. 

Preliminary results from the quantitative analysis indicate that when noncustodial parents’ weekly earnings are equal to half of the state median weekly earnings, order amounts range from $72 per week to $113 per week. When noncustodial parents’ weekly earnings are equal to 40 hours per week at the state minimum wage, order amounts range from $43 to $70 per week; in contrast, when earnings are equal to 20 hours per week at the state minimum wage, order amounts range from $0 to $32 per week.

Conclusions and Implications. Cross-state comparisons of low-income guidelines helps improve our understanding of the different ways in which states consider and implement federal guidance on noncustodial parents with limited financial resources. The results of this analysis indicate that the amount a low-income noncustodial parent is required to pay differs depending on how their state of residence interprets and operationalizes federal guidance.