The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 24, 2016

The hidden costs of withholding vehicle registration when parents don’t pay child support

August 24, 2016

In December, Texas will implement a new policy in their child support enforcement system: withholding vehicle registrations from noncustodial parents who are at least six months behind on their payments. While all 50 states can already suspend or revoke parents’ driver’s licenses for failure to pay child support, this policy adds another threat to keep people from falling behind.

The logic behind enforcement policies like this is that threatening to take something away from parents who are behind on their child support will force them to pay up. Unfortunately, this logic assumes that all noncustodial parents don’t pay because they simply don’t want to. Studies have shown, however, that many parents don’t pay because they don’t earn enough money.

When parents can’t pay their child support, enforcement policies like withholding vehicle registration can have numerous negative consequences for the parents and their children. Without a vehicle registration, parents may not be able drive to work, which may lead them to lose their jobs or be unable to find new jobs. Or they may risk driving without a registration, which can result in fines. And those fines may further impede their ability to pay child support and put them at greater risk of incarceration for nonpayment. This cycle threatens families’ financial security .

In addition, poor families can benefit a great deal from having access to a car, so taking that access away can negatively affect families. A recent study on cars as a potential key to greater opportunity demonstrated that low-income families who live in high-poverty neighborhoods benefit from having a car, allowing them to access higher-opportunity neighborhoods with better jobs.

In a Moving to Opportunity evaluation, researchers found that families with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to stay employed than families without cars. This is largely because of insufficient public transit systems in many metropolitan areas, particularly in suburban areas that may offer more jobs, more affordable housing, higher-performing schools, and other opportunities. In many communities, low-income families’ ability to reach opportunity-rich neighborhoods is closely linked to car access. Creating barriers to access may ultimately harm family residential and economic mobility.

Texas’s new policy also stands at odds with proposed rules released by the Office of Child Support Enforcement in 2014. These rules included a proposal to provide job services to noncustodial parents who have open child support orders and are unemployed or not making regular payments. The proposed services would include job search assistance, job readiness training, and work supports such as transportation assistance. Studies of pilot programs that offer services to noncustodial parents who don’t pay their child support have shown that lack of access to transportation is a key barrier to employment. They’ve also shown that employment services programs, which include transportation assistance, have positive effects on noncustodial parents and their ability to pay child support

While child support enforcement policies like suspending licenses and withholding vehicle registration are intended to encourage noncustodial parents to pay child support, these policies don’t work when parents don’t have the financial ability to pay, and may hurt the very children who should be benefitting. 

Photo via Shutterstock

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