Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007
Child Support Enforcement
One such structure is child support enforcement. Traditionally, low-income fathers have viewed that system as one-sided, biased in favor of single mothers and interested in fathers only for their money.51 As noted, child support withholding seems to have driven down employment among low-skilled young black men. But conceivably the system could also promote employment, to the benefit of both the men and child support collections.
In 2003, among the 3 million poor single mothers, only 60 percent had a child support order and only 36 percent received any payment. 52 Child support problems were most serious among black men. In 2003, 68 percent of black births occurred outside marriage, much the highest rate for any race. Probably a quarter of black men aged sixteen to twenty-four—and half of those aged twenty-five to thirty-four—are noncustodial fathers.53 Government has made far more progress in establishing support orders than in getting poor fathers to pay up.54 In 2003, about 1 million absent fathers owed child support to poor families yet paid either nothing or less than they owed.55 These are the men for whom irregular employment is likely to be part of their problem.
Middle-class absent fathers are relatively easy to locate, they usually have enough income to pay their judgments, and they cannot easily abscond. The low-income father is tougher to find and has less to lose by evading support. And if he is located, family courts have difficulty determining his ability to pay. He may claim to be jobless and destitute, but how can judges be sure? They can tell him to get a job, but they cannot verify whether he does.
Child support enforcement programs emerged to solve this problem. Judges now can remand nonpaying fathers to a work program, with the mandate to attend the program or pay up, on pain of going to jail. This obligation can be monitored, so the father cannot evade it. If he is in fact working surreptitiously, the work program will conflict with his job, forcing him to admit his earnings and pay support. If he really is jobless, the program can help him get a job. Thus help is combined with hassle.
During the 1990s, the Parents’ Fair Share (PFS) demonstration in seven sites around the country offered low-income nonpaying fathers reduced support orders along with employment and other services. In return, they were required either to pay their judgments or to attend the program. Low-income cases were also reviewed more intensively. The program increased the share of clients paying support and the amount they paid, largely through “smoke-out” effects—participation revealed unreported jobs, forcing fathers to pay up. The fathers also valued the attention they received from the job clubs and support groups provided. But PFS registered no clear gains in the fathers’ employment or earnings. 56 Children First, a similar program in Wisconsin, recorded similar results.57
Critics say that Parents’ Fair Share intervened in the child support problem too late, after the fathers had left the families and reneged on support. Better, if possible, to prevent breakup in the first place. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study found that most unwed parents plan to stay together at the point their child is born, although most split up within a year or two. “Fragile family” programs attempt to build that relationship through a range of services, but without requiring work.58 The Responsible Fatherhood and Partners for Fragile Families demonstrations were conducted in nine states during the late 1990s and early 2000s with government and foundation funding. Some Responsible Fatherhood sites showed encouraging gains in employment, earnings, and child support payment by fathers, but no experimental evaluations were done to attribute these gains clearly to the program.59 Without the requirement of work, positive impacts are probably unlikely.
Adding Mandatory Work
A more promising course is for child support enforcement programs to require work. The employment side of Parents’ Fair Share was underdeveloped. The program made clear that clients had to participate or pay up, but not that they had to work. Employment was framed largely in passive and economic terms. It was seen not as an obligation, but as a benefit provided through services such as job search. PFS banked heavily on arranging on-the-job training (OJT) for many of its clients. This proved difficult to do, in part because much of the funding had to come from the Job Training Partnership Act. JTPA often doubted that PFS fathers could satisfy employers and refused to fund them.60
If PFS had included a more clear-cut work requirement, it might have generated both more smoke-out effects and more employment gains. A work test would change PFS’s requirement from “participate or pay up” to “work and pay up.” Clients would have to get a job or work in one arranged by the program for twenty or thirty hours a week for a specified number of months, on pain of incarceration. Out of their earnings they would also pay their judgments. Once they were working and paying steadily, they could qualify for training to enhance wages. That is the sequence typical of the more successful welfare work programs.61
Many absent fathers fall behind on their support payments, in part because their judgments are not reduced when they are unemployed or in prison. These arrearages provide a further need—and opportunity—to enforce work. Some share of the arrearages owed to government might be forgiven for each month or year that a father pays his judgment. The effect would be to convert much of his monetary debt into a work obligation.62 The rationale is that society benefits when the father works, not just when he pays money. Working generates favorable spillovers for poor families and communities, aside from the income it provides.
Adding work enforcement would broaden the child support mission beyond collecting support to getting fathers to work. Some new benefits and programs would be needed, but would make it possible to enforce both work and support payment more effectively.