Reforming Child Support to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families

June 2019 / Abell Reports
Father holds his baby.
Child support enforcement practices fuel a cycle of poverty and instability for low-income parents and families. This Abell Report examines the data and recommends strategies Maryland can adopt to reform its child support system.

Two decades of research present a stark message to Maryland policymakers: 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 comply push them out of low-wage jobs, drown them in debt, hound them into the underground economy, and chase them out of their children’s lives.

Of Maryland parents who paid all of their current support, they were expected to pay 18 percent of their earnings toward child support. Parents who paid the least amount were expected to pay more than 70 percent 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. This disparity is unfair and unsustainable.

In our latest report, “Reforming Child Support to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families,” author Vicki Turetsky, who served as the commissioner for the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement for nearly eight years, examines the data and finds that it is time for Maryland to reform its child support system. Not only are orders for many low-income parents set unrealistically high, but policies around enforcement and collection are unnecessarily punitive.

For example, people who fail to pay child support can have their license suspended. But the research shows that this strategy further interferes with low-income parents’ ability to pay by affecting their ability to find and maintain employment and does not yield more money for the state.

The report focuses on 15 policy recommendations that Maryland should implement to increase the effectiveness of our child support system. Three key evidence-based strategies underlie the policy recommendations in the report:

  1. Set child support orders that reflect parents’ actual ability to pay.
  2. Reduce uncollectible child support debt.
  3. Ensure that children, not the state, receive the money when their parents pay child support.

By focusing on these three evidence-based strategies—and the specific policy recommendations in this report—we hope to offer promising alternatives that better meet the needs of low-income children and families.

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