The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 16, 2016

Child Support Enforcement can hurt black, low-income, noncustodial fathers and their kids

June 16, 2016

*This post has been updated to reflect that families don't pool for bail but rather pool to pay off child support debt.

This Father’s Day, I find myself thinking about Walter Scott, a father of four who was killed by police last spring. According to his family, he was likely running from an arrest warrant because of an unpaid child support order. News reports stated that he owed $6,800 in child support payments and had been jailed previously for failure to pay.

Scott was one of many black, low-income, noncustodial fathers who can’t pay their child support. Unfortunately, there is limited national data on the demographics of noncustodial fathers who have child support orders, including their race. But qualitative studies have shown that black, low-income, noncustodial fathers face heightened barriers when interacting with the child support system, despite their contributions to their families.

Studies have estimated that low-income, noncustodial fathers are disproportionately black, and we know that black men are more likely to be poor, face labor market discrimination, and have limited social networks to help them stay employed and able to pay their child support orders.  

Current child support enforcement policies harm black, low-income, noncustodial fathers and negatively affect their children.

1. Child Support orders may be set at rates low-income fathers can’t pay

In some states, a judge will base child support orders on the amount he or she believes a father can pay, not on his actual income. When a father can’t pay his child support order, he accrues debt called “arrears.”
This debt disproportionately harms low-income fathers: no- and low-income parents owe the largest percent of arrears. Child support debt can accrue at an interest rate of up to 12 percent, depending on the state, and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

In most states, families with child support awards are not allowed to receive full child support payments while receiving TANF assistance. Instead, all or a portion of those payments are redirected to the government for “welfare reimbursement.” One study found that 70 percent of debt in California’s child support system was owed to the government to pay back TANF benefits received by custodial families. This matters because​ custodial-parents families are twice as likely to be poor.

2. Child Support Enforcement methods can wreak havoc on fathers’ employment and ability to save money  

The Office of Child Support Enforcement authorizes several enforcement methods that can be used to collect child support, including taking up to 65 percent of a father’s wages, intercepting tax returns, placing liens on parents’ assets, suspending driver’s licenses, and denying other professional licenses. Each of these enforcement methods threatens the ability of noncustodial fathers to find and maintain employment and to earn enough to support their families.

3. Failure to pay child support can lead to incarceration

In states like South Carolina, where Walter Scott lived, parents can be held in contempt of the court and incarcerated if their payments are as few as five days late.

While there is no national data on how many people are incarcerated for failure to pay child support, studies suggest that the problem is significant. A 2005 survey in South Carolina found that one in eight inmates had been incarcerated for failure to pay child support.

And when fathers are incarcerated, they cannot work or save money to send to their children, and they may not be able to suspend or adjust their child support orders, increasing their debt. An Office of Child Support Enforcement study found that half of incarcerated parents nationwide had past-due child support. And incarceration hurts fathers when they try to find employment after release from prison.

4. Debt and incarceration hinder black fathers and cause harm to their children 

The effects of these child support enforcement policies put low-income fathers, disproportionately black men, into financial insecurity because the policies threaten these fathers’ ability to find and maintain employment and to accumulate assets and wealth. Incarceration for failure to pay child support also directly removes fathers from their children’s lives with lasting economic and social repercussions.

Some studies also suggest that families will pool resources to pay off child support for fathers who are incarcerated for failure to pay, draining resources from the entire family.*

How can states improve child support enforcement?

If the purpose of the Child Support Enforcement system is to serve children living with a custodial parent, it should better account for their fathers’ needs.  

Luckily, scholars and advocates recommend solutions for states to improve the child support enforcement system and help noncustodial fathers pay their child support orders and stay involved with their children.

  • Set orders at what fathers can actually pay, based on their current income and assets. Similarly, states need to have more clear and straightforward processes for adjusting child support orders when income changes. Studies have found that fathers pay more often when orders were set at 20 percent of income or less. Realistic orders can encourage parental engagement and provision for children.
  • Stop incarcerating poor and unemployed men for delinquent child support debt. Experts recommend that states stop considering incarceration “voluntary unemployment” and stop accruing child support when a parent is incarcerated.
  • Forgive existing child support debt that is owed to the states (and not the children) and allow families receiving TANF to receive all child support instead of directing that payment to the state as reimbursement.
  • Help fathers find and maintain employment so that they can pay child support. Work-oriented programs for unemployed noncustodial dads who owe child support debt have been shown to increase their employment rates and increase the amount and frequency of child support payment.

This Father’s Day, let’s move away from a child support system that treats noncustodial fathers like “deadbeat dads” and instead recognize that dads can make more significant contributions to their children’s lives if child support policies address barriers. To pay child support and foster their children’s well-being, low-income dads need a child support enforcement system that supports work, allows them to save money, and encourages them to engage with their children.

Kevin Johnson, 30, far left, and Milan Woodard, 31, second from left, listen with a group of other men during a Fathers' Support Center session on Sept. 30, 2015 in Wellston, Missouri. Johnson and Woodard both accrued child support debt while they were incarcerated and are in a program at the nonprofit that helps them find a job, develop strategies for handling their arrears, and work on their parenting skills. Photo by Whitney Curtis for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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