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Although Important to Families, Child Support is Sometimes Hard to Collect

Helping improve income for non-custodial parents may be a better strategy

One of the toughest problems facing the child welfare system is enforcing child support orders. Most non-custodial parents pay at least some child support, but many don’t. According to the latest figures, approximately 43.4 percent of parents who are owed child support receive everything they are owed, 30.4 percent receive part of it, and 25.9 percent receive nothing at all.

A new study examines two recent strategies to collect child support from parents who have proven hardest to collect from—the poor. The results, published in the September 2015 Social Service Review, illustrate the difficulty of the problem and suggest that policy makers may want to look for solutions beyond simply enforcement and collection.

Over the years, governmentshave made it harder for noncustodial parents to shirk their child support responsibilities. States can garnish wages, impose liens, and revoke the licenses of non-paying parents. States have also experimented with various collection strategies and debt forgiveness schemes that offer incentives to parents who make an effort to repay back child support. One problem is that few of these efforts have been subjected to rigorous testing to determine if they work.

In 2012, Washington state tried a new strategy to collect old child support debt. It assigned to 16 state workers the task of collecting from parents who no longer owed child support (typically because their children were grown) but still owed money to the state.

The state also tried a new strategy to increase current child support payments. In this case it hoped to increase the payments simply by mailing monthly notices to non-custodial parents.

In an article titled “Increasing Child Support Collections From the Hard-to-Collect: Experimental Evidence From Washington State,” researchers reported that mailed notices did nothing to increase the likelihood that non-custodialparents paid child support.

On the other hand, the effort to collect old child support debt seemed to reap a modest benefit with the state taking in $115 of old debt for every $100 it spent on administrative costs. And yet the researchers say it’s impossible to know how much of that debt would have been collected anyway without the program being tested.

Child support makes up almost half of the income of custodial parents below the poverty level. Research suggests that it helps women leave and stay off welfare.

But millions of dollars go unpaid, causing hardship for families and greater expense for states. Who are these non-paying parents? Most are men, and most are poor. States have legal tools to force unwilling parents to pay, but it’s hard to collect from parents without assets or regular jobs. And until recently, researchers have paid relatively little attention to the issue.

The current study offers fewanswers to states looking for ways to improve the payment of child support. But it does show that rigorous experimentation can help determine the effectiveness of interventions that states may want to try.

It also suggests that states may want to focus more on helping non-custodial parents find jobs. The assumption behind many collection and enforcement efforts is that “hard-to-collect” parents can but don’t want to pay. Many parents may simply not have the money as unemployment is still high in poor communities.

“It turns out it’s a very difficult population to collect from,” says Robert Plotnick, the study’s lead author and the Daniel J. Evans Professor of Public Affairs and associate dean of the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. “A number of folks argue, as we do, that we should help these parents do better in labor markets so they can afford to pay.”

Joining Plotnick in the study were Asaph Glosser, a senior research associate at MEF Associates; and M. Kathleen Moore and Emmi Obara, both PhD students at the Evans School.


Plotnick, Robert; Glosser, Asaph; Moore, Kathleen M.; Obara, Emmi. “Increasing Child Support Collections from the Hard-to-Collect: Experimental Evidence from Washington State.” Social Service Review, 89 (4), pp. 427-454.