More than one in four children, including almost half of all Black children, have a parent who lives outside their home. Many of these families interact with the child support system, which intends to secure support for children from noncustodial parents. Although the child support system can be successful for families with sufficient financial resources, the system’s enforcement measures and rules about what counts as child support may unintentionally undermine family well-being for families with low incomes and noncustodial parents who face structural barriers to financial stability.
People of color are more likely to have low incomes because of centuries of discriminatory policies and practices, resulting in disparate access to education and quality jobs. As a result, required monetary payments—and related enforcement measures—may worsen financial circumstances for these families.
In recognition of families’ desires for more flexible contributions, the San Francisco Department of Child Support Services (DCSS) has piloted a voluntary program that explores an alternative—allowing parents to meet their child support obligations through agreed-upon, in-kind contributions. This model builds on the Yurok Tribe’s child support services, which allows parents to support their children in ways beyond monetary support, including providing diapers, fish, firewood, and child care.
As the child support commissioner for the San Francisco Superior Court (PDF) said, “I cannot tell you how many times in the course of my career I have heard the words ‘but I take care of my child and buy diapers, clothing, food and anything else needed.’ And I have had to explain to the litigant that such actions do not count. Under this program, now they can.”
The in-kind pilot challenges the notion that cash child support works for everyone all the time by acknowledging cultural and familial diversity and legitimizing parents as the experts in how best to support their children. By shifting away from purely monetary child support contributions, this approach could strengthen family relationships, promote racial and cultural equity, and improve families’ and communities’ financial well-being.
Families of color could benefit most from in-kind support
In the current child support system, in-kind support doesn’t count toward satisfying a child support order, but more than half of custodial parents already receive some kind of noncash support (PDF) from the noncustodial parent. Research has shown that noncustodial parents, and Black fathers in particular, may already provide informal noncash child support to their children through purchasing diapers, providing child care, transporting children to school and activities, and buying groceries. But the system doesn’t recognize this existing support, instead requiring them to meet monetary orders, which can disrupt informal agreements parents may already have and exacerbate existing financial challenges.
In-kind support may be preferred by some families with low incomes as noncustodial parents may face barriers to steady employment, making formal monetary child support orders impractical. In-kind support provides an alternative to punitive child support enforcement, allowing noncustodial parents to support their children even if they’re struggling financially. It also allows for flexibility to address the needs of the family in the moment and can empower both parents to support the child.
In addition, in-kind support can have positive effects on children. Children may be more aware of in-kind support than cash support, strengthening the parent-child bond. Research shows that father involvement is critical for children’s well-being, and recognizing in-kind contributions has the potential to support positive relationships between coparents and their children.
Allowing in-kind contributions can legitimize existing agreements and strengthen families
DCSS’s pilot program seeks to recognize that parents support their children in ways beyond the payment of monetary child support orders and allow parents to fulfill their obligations through in-kind contributions. These contributions—such as diapers, groceries, prepared food, clothing, child care, car repairs, and transportation—would “count” toward a child support order.
Of course, this pilot requires new ways of working. The process for determining an in-kind agreement involves mediation between coparents, decisions about which in-kind goods and services to include in the agreement, and the value of those in-kind supports. These agreements also require monitoring to make sure the agreement is working for the family.
Our team of Urban researchers is working closely with DCSS and their partners to document the implementation process of this pilot so other California counties can learn how to implement this approach. We will detail the efforts required to stand up this program, including agency coordination and communication, staffing, staff perceptions of the program, department performance, and costs of implementation in a forthcoming summer 2023 report.
As early results from the San Francisco pilot come in, more research is needed to highlight the ways the child support system affects families’ experiences and financial stability.