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In September 2007, child support arrears had reached $107 billion. The purpose of this report is to provide information about the individuals who owe child support arrears, estimate how much arrears are likely to be collected, and identify the factors that have led to their rapid growth. We find that most arrears are owed by noncustodial parents who have no or low reported incomes. We estimate that 40 percent of arrears in seven large states are likely to be collected over 10 years. The primary reason arrears have grown is because many states have begun to assess interest on arrears.
Despite record child support collections by state child support programs, considerable sums of child support go unpaid every year. These past due payments of child support, referred to as child support arrears, have reached unprecedented levels in recent years. In September 2006, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) reported that $105.4 billion of child support arrears had accumulated nationwide since the program began in 1975. This represented nearly a ten-fold increase in 19 years.
The large accumulation of child support arrears is of serious concern to child support policy makers for a number of reasons. To the extent that these arrears could be collected, the additional child support would clearly benefit the children and families owed the support. Many of these families live in poverty. Receiving this financial support would help them escape this plight. Arrears collection is also a federal performance measure for state child support programs. Federal incentive funding for these programs is based, in part, on the number of cases paying arrears. Finally, large arrears balances give the impression that state child support programs are not doing their job, a perception that is not always accurate. High arrears are often interpreted by the public as a sign of agency incompetence and a failure to serve custodial parents and children, when, in fact, the picture is much more complicated than that.
Many child support policy makers have begun to think critically about how to better manage arrears. State child support policy makers from 15 Northeast Hub jurisdictions, along with their federal and private partners, produced an instructive document called “Managing Child Support Arrears, a Discussion Framework,” which identifies the key areas of child support policy that may be contributing to the growth of child support arrears. Several states have also produced detailed analyses of their child support arrears.
In an effort to build upon this knowledge, OCSE and the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), both of which are part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), contracted with the Urban Institute to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the composition of child support arrears and the causes of their dramatic growth. As part of this study, the Urban Institute has provided nine large states with detailed data analyses of their arrears.
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