Improving Child Well-Being

September 2000 / Abell Reports / Health and Human Services, Workforce Development

Focusing on low-income noncustodial parents in Maryland.

The child support system was created to enforce children’s rights to receive financial support from both of their parents, regardless of their marital status. This report focuses on the roles and responsibilities of low-income noncustodial parents (NCPs), primarily fathers who do not live with their children, for improving the well-being of their children by providing financial and emotional support. It considers how the child support system in Maryland might be changed so that it facilitates compliance by low-income NCPs, helps to increase their rates of employment, and integrates services that will help them fulfill their roles as responsible parents.

The need for these types of changes is clearly illustrated in statistics about child support compliance in Maryland and in Baltimore City. In fiscal year 1999, only 18 percent of child support cases in Maryland, and 16 percent of child support cases in Baltimore City, were fully paid. Nonpayment of child support is problematic for the children and custodial families who do not receive the support to which they are entitled. Nonpayment also can be problematic for noncustodial parents, who then are subject to the child support agency’s enforcement tools.

Because child support can be a significant source of income for low-income families, it is important to understand why compliance rates are so low. Low-income noncustodial fathers are a heterogeneous group; there are many reasons why they often fail to pay child support on their children’s behalf. Some NCPs choose not to pay because of strained relationships with custodial parents, conflicts over visitation rights, or concerns that custodial parents will not spend the funds wisely. Others no doubt refuse to pay because they do not care about their children or reject the notion that they have a responsibility to provide financial support for them.

A basic reason why many low-income NCPs do not pay child support regularly is that they are unemployed or under-employed, and have only a limited income from which to pay child support. Over the last several years, the economy has been strong, labor markets have been tight, and unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in decades. Yet employment levels for young African American men in Baltimore have stagnated
over the last few years and do not reflect this positive economic trend. The current child support system does not do a good job of helping poor fathers meet their children’s needs when they are unemployed or underemployed. It can and should be improved. The welfare reforms of 1996 encouraged more low-income mothers to enter the workplace so they can better support their children. Helping poor fathers become employed so they can take more financial responsibility for their children is the next step. Unfortunately, most employment programs that aim to serve men, especially men who are NCPs, have not met with much success. Part of the reason is that these programs have experienced great difficulty in recruiting fathers — that is, in getting them to come through the front door.

This paper explores ways in which the child support system can be used to help poor fathers become employed and take more financial (and emotional) responsibility for their children. This approach differs from previous attempts to provide employment services to low-income NCPs because it is comprehensive. This approach calls for simultaneously providing employment services and addressing the difficulties that low-income NCPs may have with the child support system (including child support orders that are high relative to their income levels, large accumulated child support debts, and economic disincentives to pay child support). Integrating employment services with the child support system should also be able to raise participation rates in employment programs because the child support system can provide both the “carrots,” or positive incentives, and the “sticks,” or punitive measures, that would encourage (or require) low-income NCPs to participate.

In proposing improvements to the child support system, this paper focuses primarily on the NCP’s part of the equation. Changing the child support system by supplementing standard enforcement activities with services for low-income NCPs should have a number of positive effects in addition to increasing the employment levels of these fathers. Ultimately, the reason for these changes is to increase child wellbeing by ensuring that more children benefit from the child support to which they are entitled and by improving family functioning.