Panel Paper: Child Support Enforcement and Nonresident Fathers’ Accumulation of Arrears

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Court 8 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Lenna Nepomnyaschy1, Maureen R. Waller2, Daniel Miller3, Allison Dwyer Emory4, Alexandra Haralampoudis1, Nathan Robbins2 and Kasey Eickmeyer1, (1)Rutgers University, (2)Cornell University, (3)Boston University, (4)University at Buffalo

The goal of the child support enforcement system is to ensure that children living with only one parent receive financial support from their nonresident parent; however, only about 40% of custodial mothers who are owed support receive the full amount due. Over the last 40 years, states have enacted a series of more stringent and often punitive measures to increase child support payments from nonresident fathers, including unrealistically high child support obligations, charging Medicaid-covered birthing costs to fathers, not allowing modification of orders during incarceration, imposition of high interest rates, suspension of drivers and professional licenses, and incarceration for non-payment of child support. In addition, many states keep much of the child support collected on behalf of mothers receiving public assistance in order to recoup these state expenditures, creating a disincentive for fathers to pay support through the formal system. As a result of such policies as well as the overall poor employment prospects of many nonresident fathers, child support arrears, or the accumulation of child support debt, has grown to over $114 billion, with 70% of these arrears owed by fathers with less than $10,000 of income. Besides being uncollectable, arrears may also reduce fathers’ employment, increase risk of incarceration, and reducing reduce support for and contact with children and families. While it is likely that many of the policies discussed above contribute to accumulation of arrears, no study has explicitly examined this question.

In this study, we explore the associations of 10 state-level child support enforcement policies with the accumulation of arrears among a sample of children with nonresident fathers. We link a unique database (collected by our team) of 10 child support enforcement policies that vary by state and over time (1998-2015) with longitudinal population-based data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), which follows children born in urban areas b/w 1998 and 2000 over 15 years. We estimate the associations of these policies, individually and in various combinations, with the accumulation of arrears among nonresident fathers across all follow-up surveys of the FFCWS, when children are 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15 years old, controlling for relevant individual, family, and state-level characteristics, as well as state and individual fixed effects.

Descriptive results show that noncustodial fathers have on average $2800 in arrears over the period, but this debt accrues from approximately $350 to over $5000 between years 1 and 15. Preliminary analyses suggest that fathers living in states with higher interest rates, automatic application of interest, and retroactive orders have higher arrears; while those living in states allowing self-support reserves and minimum orders have lower arrears. Next steps include combining these policies into relevant indices to understand how these policies interact to impact arrears accumulation and to examine effects for different groups of fathers. The results from these analyses should contribute to our understanding of which policies contribute most to arrears accumulation and the best tools to reduce such accumulation.