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Child Support Policy: Some Critical Issues and the Implications for Social Work.

The growth of female-headed households and the concurrent likelihood of poverty in such families have increased interest by the public and policymakers in examining policies affecting this group. Particularly since 1975, policymakers have focused on the child support system as a way to reduce high poverty rates among children in single-parent families and the public cost of supporting those families (Seavey, 1996; Wong, 1993). As a result of this focus, child support collections reached $12.0 billion in fiscal year 1996, an 11 percent increase over fiscal year 1995. Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC) collections amounted to $2.9 billion of that total with AFDC families receiving over $480 million in pass-through payments (Office of Child Support Enforcement, 1998).

Although there has been steady improvement in the amount of child support collected--that is, money paid by the absent parent to the custodial parent for the support of their children--the amount that is due continues to be much greater than the amount received. It is estimated that nationwide, parents are owed $35.4 billion in overdue child support (Meckler, 1997). However, if full payment had been made to the 1.26 million families who were living in poverty in 1991 and were scheduled to receive child support payments, only 140,000 of them would have received enough income from these payments to put them above the poverty level (U.S. House of Representatives, 1998). Although it may not bring a single-parent family out of poverty, child support is a significant source of income for these families, because single mothers, even if they work, are likely to be in poverty (Edin & Lein, 1997; Garfinkel, McLanahan, & Robins, 1994; Seavey, 1996). In 1995, 41.5 percent of the nearly 8.8 million families headed by mot hers with children under 18 had incomes below the poverty level. Slightly more than 13 percent of these families were poor even though the mother worked year round, full time. At the same time, child support collections resulted in 294,000 families being removed from AFDC (U.S. House of Representatives).

Most child support legislation has focused on fostering responsible behavior toward children by parents, contributing to the well-being of families, and reducing welfare costs. This latter goal, reduction of the costs of the Title IV-A program, has taken precedence. By requiring that most of the child support collected for welfare families be given back to the state rather than going directly to the families and by strengthening the penalties for parents who do not pay child support, unintended effects may have resulted. About one-third of the 4.6 million custodial mothers without awards chose not to pursue a child support award (U.S. House of Representatives, 1998). The question remains whether increasing punitive policies results in some mothers' reluctance to participate in the formal system, particularly because applicants for child support do not have the right to select what enforcement actions are taken. Rather than improving compliance and enforcement, as these policies intend, they may have an oppos ite result of reducing the number of child support awards made. Although it is clear that current policies have increased the amount of child support collected, it is unclear what effect the emphasis on debt collection and penalties for nonpayment has had on parents' decisions regarding child support.

Debt Collection or Best Interest of the Child

Until recently, federal law required that payments from the absent parent be used to increase the income of families on welfare by only $50 a month, with the balance going back to the state. In fiscal year 1996 this policy resulted in the recovery of 15.5 percent of AFDC payments (U.S. House of Representatives, 1998). Not only does this policy put debt collection above the wellbeing of families, there is increasing evidence that it sabotages the goal of increasing paternity establishment and collection of child support.

Furstenberg, Sherwood, and Sullivan (1992), using focus groups of fathers, found the state's retention of all but $50 discouraged men from paying through formal channels. In the father's opinion, paying through the formal system did nothing to improve their child's well-being. Dail and Thieman (1996) evaluated results of a federally funded project to improve coparenting relationships between custodial and noncustodial parents, with the goal of increasing child support payments. They found that the $50 per month that would be received by the women on welfare was not a sufficient financial incentive for the mother to make any effort to renew her contact with the father. They also concluded that even well-intended noncustodial parents do not feel a strong incentive to pay child support when the children can receive only $50 more a month.

Similar results were found in the study done by Edin and Lein (1997) in which in-depth interviews were conducted with 379 low-income single mothers to determine how they "make ends meet." They found that welfare recipients believed that the father of their children had an obligation to help but that it was necessary to evade the formal child support system to get any substantial assistance. A nearly universal attitude was that it is much better for fathers to pay voluntarily and that turning the issue over to the authorities should be used as a last resort. Given the recent decision by many states to eliminate the $50 pass-through, as allowed by recent change in federal law, parents will have even less incentive to cooperate (Office of Child Support Enforcement, 1997).

Two studies of paternity establishment echo similar sentiments. In Arizona, Nichols-Casebolt (1994) found that attitudes of the mothers and fathers played a significant role in their decisions and that strategies for obtaining cooperation were proving to be ineffective in improving paternity establishment rates among AFDC clients. In Colorado a Child Support Improvement Project found that in-hospital paternity interventions could produce dramatic increases in voluntary paternity acknowledgment rates. However, many parents still refused to sign voluntary paternity acknowledgments. Fear of formal child support was cited most frequently by mothers as the reason that the fathers would not sign the paternity affidavit (Pearson & Thoennes, 1996).

Another policy that may have unintended effects is the incarceration of absent parents if they refuse to pay their child support. In a survey of teenage parents, Wattenberg (1987) found that among the reasons mothers cited for avoiding paternity adjudication were prison and possible statutory rape charges against the father. Roberts (1994) reported that threats to incarcerate fathers did not have much effect on the father's behavior, but custodial mothers were reluctant to send the father of their children to jail. Edin (1995), using the sample documented in Edin and Lein (1997), found that mothers would rather get some money covertly than contribute to the father's being harassed or jailed and they believed that having him in prison would mean getting no support.

From these studies it would appear that the $50 pass-through rule, as well as child support enforcement procedures, can have a negative effect on the incentive of both parents to establish paternity and pursue a child support award. As Edin and Lein (1997) documented, by going through the formal child support system, families do not necessarily get the income that they so desperately need. In addition, the parents may find that the unintended effects of enforcement procedures can outweigh the benefits.

Implications for Social Work

Given the complexities of child support law and the judicial system that must be navigated, many clients find it difficult to make an informed decision that will serve the best interest of the child, as well as the interests of the parents, without the help of an advocate. Because many clients cannot afford an attorney and the child support offices in some states have huge caseloads, it may well be social workers who could best function in this capacity. Many of the settings where social workers are employed have clients who are faced with this decision. It is critical that the social worker do a careful assessment of the client's situation and beliefs in regard to child support. Are there safety concerns? What are the benefits and the consequences of each decision they must make in regard to child support? What would be in the best interest of the child?

For both mothers and fathers, there are consequences for taking action to get involved in the formal system of child support and consequences for not taking action. Social workers need to be knowledgeable about the laws and policies at the state and federal levels. Given that laws change fairly often, this may seem like a formidable task. However, most states, as well as the federal office, have information available that can be obtained through their Web site.

Social workers who are in settings that serve unmarried parents need to address issues of paternity. Wattenberg (1987) found that social services workers in community-based programs and hospital settings paid little attention to paternity issues. Furthermore, she found that information that workers did have was often incorrect, vague, or rumor-laden. Social workers should be able to explain to unmarried couples the benefits of establishing paternity that they may not have considered. In addition to gaining access to genetic information and medical history that may be important later in life, there is the possibility of financial benefits at a later time, including social security and worker's compensation benefits, even if the father is not able to provide much assistance currently. Having this information might influence either parent's decision.

Fathers need to be made aware of the consequences if they do not pay child support from the beginning of their child's life and know that the law now allows paternity to be established up until the child's 18th birthday. If the mother of their child receives welfare benefits and then later the father is ordered to pay support, he should know that he will be expected to reimburse the state for those payments. How many fathers are aware of these policies? Wattenberg (1987) found that for many of the fathers, their rights and responsibilities routinely went unexplained.

Social workers should advocate for changes in the way policy is formulated in this area so that the well-being of children and families is the first goal, rather than debt collection. Numerous demonstration projects draw on a strengths perspective rather than a punitive approach. For example, Arkansas is using an employment counseling approach as an alternative to incarceration for young unemployed, non-custodial parents unable to pay child support because they are unable to get or maintain a job. Illinois has established a "one-stop shopping" customer service center in Chicago to create a more user-friendly child support enforcement system that includes enhanced services for helping custodial parents and addressing the employment needs of noncustodial parents (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1995). These more positive efforts focus on improving the well-being of families without resorting to restrictive sanctions.


There are many reasons why women do not file for child support and why fathers do not pay. These issues are more complicated than simply concluding that the absent fathers are shirking their responsibility and that mothers are satisfied staying on welfare. Social policy that is guided by an understanding of what issues are critical and what would actually make a difference in the lives of these families would be more productive than policies that are punitive. Furthermore, unintended effects and consequences are undercutting the purposes for which child support is created. Future research should focus on learning more about the actual experiences of mothers and fathers who are trying to make decisions about child support and the reasons why they do not cooperate with the formal system. Social work should advocate for a more reasoned, positive approach, rather than an increasingly punitive and counterproductive one. The results could have beneficial effects for all concerned: the children, the mothers, and the fathers.

Janice H. Laakso, PhD, ACSW, is assistant professor, School of Social Work, University of Washington, Tacoma; e-mail: An earlier version of this article was presented at the 22nd Annual NASW Texas State Conference, November 1998, Austin, The author thanks Dr. Yolanda Padilla, Dr. Laura Lein, Dr. Diana DiNitto, and John Laakso for their assistance and suggestions in the writing of this article.


Dail, P.W., & Thieman, A. A. (1996). Improving parental partnerships in low-income families as a means for increasing noncustodial parental compliance with child support orders: A research report. Journal of Family Issues, 17, 688-703.

Edin, K. (1995). Single mothers and child support: The possibilities and limits of child support policy. Children and Youth Services Review, 17, 203-230.

Edin, K. & Lein, L. (1997). Making ends meet. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Furstenberg, F., Jr., Sherwood, K. E., & Sullivan, M. (1992). Caring and paying: What fathers and mothers say about child support. New York: MDRC.

Garfinkel, I., McLanahan, S. S. & Robins, P. K. (1994). Child support and child well-being: What have we learned? In I. Garfinkel, S. S. McLanahan, & P. K. Robins (Eds.), Child support and child well-being (pp. 1-28). Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.

Meckler, L. (1997, September 14). Agency called lax in child support. Austin American Statesman, p. A29.

Nichols-Casebolt, A. (1994). Establishing paternity: An analysis of cases from two Arizona counties. Social Work Research, 18, 5-15.

Office of Child Support Enforcement. (1997). $50 pass-through. Child Support Report (On-line). Available:

Office of Child Support Enforcement (1998). 21st annual report: 1996 program highlights (On-line). Available:

Pearson, J., & Thoennes, N. (1996, January). Colorado makes strides in paternity establishment. Child Support Report, 18, 1.

Roberts, P. G. (1994). Child support orders: Problems with enforcement. The Future of Children, 4, 101-119.

Seavey, D. K. (1996). Back to basics: Women's poverty and welfare reform. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1995). Child support enforcement: 20th annual report to Congress for the period ending September 30, 1995. Washington, DC: Office of Child Support Enforcement.

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means (1998). 1998 green book. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wattenberg, E. (1987). Establishing paternity for nonmarital children: Do policy and practice discourage adjudication? Public Welfare, 45, 9-13, 48.

Wong, P. (1993). Child support and welfare reform. New York: Garland.
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Author:Laakso, Janice H.
Publication:Social Work
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2000
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