Working To Enhance The Quality Of Life
In Baltimore And In Maryland.

Improving the Lives of Noncustodial Parents and Their Children Through Changes to Child Support Enforcement

Program Area: 

For years, the Abell Foundation has supported two organizations that provide job training for low-income African American men and their families. 

  • The Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF):  JOTF works to eliminate educational and employment barriers for low-wage workers by transforming the systems and policies that create and perpetuate those barriers.  Using research, JOTF identifies and advocates to change Maryland laws, policies, and practices that penalize individuals who are living in poverty and prevent them from obtaining employment or advancing in jobs.  JOTF’s policy agenda is informed by its job training programming, which is designed to provide low-income job seekers with career pathways to higher-paying skilled jobs that are in demand.  With funding from the Abell Foundation, JOTF’s Project Jumpstart provides low-income Baltimore City residents with 13 weeks of pre-apprenticeship training.  For the past 10 years, Project Jumpstart has served over 1,000 Baltimore residents, almost all of whom are African American men (96%).  Each year, the program places 75% of its graduates into employment, earning $15 per hour, with over 20% enrolling in Associated Builders and Contractors construction apprenticeships.  
  • The Center for Urban Families (CFUF):  CFUF’s core mission is to strengthen urban communities by helping fathers and families achieve stability and economic success.  CFUF grew out of an effort to help the fathers of infants and toddlers become effective parents involved in their children’s lives, addressing barriers to parental involvement, including unemployment, substance abuse, high child support arrearages, low educational attainment, and criminal backgrounds.  STRIVE Baltimore serves as the cornerstone of CFUF’s programming.  The STRIVE model emphasizes attitudinal training, job placement, and post-placement support, with a strict, demanding three-week workshop that focuses on workplace behavior, appearance, and attitude.  Participants also receive computer skills training, Microsoft Office applications, and basic workplace math skills.  In 2019, A total of 146 participants graduated from STRIVE, with 132 graduates (90%) being placed into jobs; 70 former graduates were also placed into jobs, bringing the total number of job placements to 202.  STRIVE graduates placed into employment earned an average of $13 per hour. 

Participants in Project Jumpstart and STRIVE Baltimore face numerous obstacles to employment, but perhaps the most pervasive and challenging obstacle is the system of child support enforcement. Unrealistic child support policies and practices entangle low-income Black families in poverty and have become a destabilizing force in the Baltimore community. Child support orders set beyond the ability of noncustodial parents to pay push the parents out of entry-level jobs they have been trained for and into the underground economy, as child support agencies can withhold up to 65% of gross earnings when child support debt is owed.  These orders drown noncustodial parents in debt and exacerbate family hardship and tension, driving a wedge between the parents and pushing noncustodial parents away from their children.   They are a systemic obstacle to fathers’ ability to find and maintain employment to support their children.

The Abell Foundation asked Vicki Turetsky, who served as the commissioner for the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement for nearly eight years, to examine the Maryland child support system and to provide concrete recommendations for improving it.  In her 2019 Abell report, Reforming Child Support to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families, Ms. Turetsky found that not only are child support orders for many Maryland low-income parents set unrealistically high, but also policies around enforcement and collection are unnecessarily punitive, resulting in uncollectible debt.  The report cites University of Maryland School of Social Work studies that found that in 2018, more than $1.3 billion in child support debt went uncollected in Maryland; of that, more than $400 million was uncollected in Baltimore.

When child support payments are set too high, parents cannot pay.  Research shows that parents who paid all of their current child support were expected to pay 18% of their earnings toward child support.  Parents who paid the least amount were expected to pay more than 70% of their income.  Parents who struggle to pay some or all of their child support often have low incomes—earning below $20,000 per year.  Parents who did not pay any of their child support earned under $7,350 per year statewide and just $5,800 per year in Baltimore. 

The report presents 15 concrete policy recommendations that Maryland can implement to increase the effectiveness of the child support system. These strategies focus on setting child support orders that reflect parents’ actual ability to pay; reducing uncollectible child support debt; and ensuring that children, not the state, receive the money when their parents pay child support.

During the 2019 Maryland General Assembly, JOTF, CFUF, and the report’s author offered testimony in support of legislation that provides guidance to judges on setting child support orders based on the low-income parents’ actual income, and limiting the use of “potential” or imputed income.  The legislation also establishes a definition of “voluntarily impoverished” to guide judges in considering a noncustodial parent’s circumstances in setting child support orders, and updates the self-support reserve, which is intended to leave enough income for low-income noncustodial parents to pay for basic subsistence needs.  The legislation was passed into law.

Information published March 2021.