Does Harsh Child Support Enforcement Work?

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Does Harsh Child Support Enforcement Work?
April 4, 2013
Top Story
Does Harsh Child Support Enforcement Work?
By Ned Holstein, MD, MS, Founder and Chair of the Board,
Fathers and Families

Ned Holstein
Ned Holstein, MD, MS
Founder & Chair of the Board
(Third in a Series on Child Support)

The United States has spent large amounts of money and employed draconian tactics to collect child support for almost 25 years. Have these policies been effective? And at what price?

In the late 1980s, the federal government passed a law requiring each state to develop a formula that would dictate the amount of child support ordered in most cases. The formula, called the Child Support Guidelines, was supposed to be based on actual costs of raising children, although we know this has not been the case. The federal law also required each state to establish laws, policies, and procedures to maximize the number of cases in which a child support order was established, and to enforce child support collection.

There is no question that the percentage of people who paid child support and the average amounts paid increased shortly thereafter. It seems most likely that the early increases in these measures were due primarily to establishing a court order for payment, as opposed to the enforcement measures. When a court order was made, parents who had money paid it.

How have we done in more recent years? I have examined data from the US Census Bureau (Table 1) on child support from 1993 through 2009. Basically, they show little or no further improvement despite the expenditure of about $5 billion per year to collect child support

To simplify the presentation, I compare 1995 to 2007. I don’t use 1993 because results in that year could still reflect the after-effects of the 1991 recession. And I don’t use 2009, because it definitely shows the effects of the recession that began in December, 2007. Also, I am reporting only those data in which fathers are the child support payers, not mothers, since my previous columns have shown that child support collection efforts are more vigorously pursued against fathers.

The percent of custodial mothers who were awarded any child support order at all was 61% in 1995 and 60% in 2007—no increase. Of those who had an order to receive child support, the percentage of mothers who actually received any child support at all was 76% in 1995 and 76% in 2007—no improvement. Of those who were supposed to receive child support, the percentage who received the full amount was 42% in 1995 and 47% in 2007—a small improvement. The average percentage of the child support order that was actually paid was 66% in 1995 and 63% in 2007—a small decline.

All of these measures declined in 2009, clearly as a result of the recession.

These results show that from 1995 through 2009, intensive efforts to increase the collection of child support have had little effect. The data from 2009 shows that economic factors are more important in determining compliance than enforcement of child support orders. In other words, when fathers have the money, they mostly pay it. (Of course, this has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in numerous careful studies).

What is left to do? The obvious answer is shared parenting. Studies show that child support compliance improves with shared parenting. This stands to reason. Why is it that parents who are migrant workers living in barracks thousands of miles from their children send their meager earnings back home? Why is it that parents work two or three jobs making it almost impossible for them to enjoy time with their children? Obviously, to support their children. Why do parents work in deadly dangerous jobs? Again, for their children.

The answer is so simple—parents will sacrifice for children they feel belong to them. Take their children away, eliminate their voice in decision-making, let the custodial parent move far away, prohibit contact with children based on a phony restraining order, or place parental rights in the hands of a hostile ex, and they no longer feel like parents. Although most will pay child support anyway, many will not walk the last mile for kids who no longer belong to them.

Shared parenting will improve the financial support of children.
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