Public Policies and Procedures that Work
Against the Two Parent Family

Drafted By: Pamela Holcomb HHS/ASPE
Linda Melgren HHS/ASPE
John Wolff HHS/ASPE
June 1995



Many questions have been raised about how families can be affected by public policies. These questions probe at issues affecting both family formation and family dissolution. For example, is the two-parent family weakened or discouraged by tax policies that reduce the economic value of marriage and children, such as the declining economic value of the dependent child deduction and the marriage penalty? Similar questions are asked about program policies which seem to encourage single parenthood: Does the AFDC eligibility policy which requires resident fathers to have a work history in order for the family to receive benefits reduce a poor couples willingness to marry or stay married?

Questions are now also being raised about policies that might reduce the chances for reconciliation when couples are having difficulties or increase the level of conflict for couples that are attempting to co-parent after a separation or divorce has occurred. For example, does the winner-take-all orientation of the legal system increase conflict rather than resolve conflict between parents? However, these new questions about how public policies might exacerbate post-marital problems are as difficult to document from a research perspective as are the questions surrounding family formation and dissolution.

The purpose of this section is to review the questions that have been raised about the effect of various public policies and research findings related to the issues of family formation, dissolution and post-marital parenting. Five subject areas are covered: Programs that Support Low-income Families; Tax Policy, Child Support Guidelines; Family Law and the Legal System; and Employment and Training.


The interaction between federal programs and family formation and dissolution is more often the subject of social commentators than of academic research. There is concern that the same programs that provide many intact and single parent households with the financial resources necessary for basic survival may have a detrimental effect on families particularly with respect to family stability, work effort, child support, and custody and visitation. Additionally there is often concern expressed by parents and program providers that the best interests of the child may get lost as parents, program line workers, courts and lawyers focus on working around, circumventing, or accommodating to peculiar program rules.

Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) Program

Basic AFDC. One of the crucial questions of our day is whether the AFDC program, a program that guarantees at least some level of subsistence for poor single parents and their children actually promotes out-of-wedlock child bearing and marital instability. This is the thesis articulated by many conservative thinkers in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Charles Murray in Losing Ground. Despite the political popularity of this position, 76 of the major academic researchers who are engaged in welfare research have publics stated that most research shows little or no relationship between out of wedlock childbearing and receipt of welfare benefits.(1)

However, for many the debate is not about research findings but about the message of welfare. For some the message of welfare is that the government must protect its most vulnerable children. For others the welfare message is that government is willing to take over the responsibilities of parents to support their children. The debate continues in the Congress, in State legislatures, in the press and even among welfare recipients themselves.(2)

The AFDC program provides cash support to dependent children and their caregiver. The caregiver is usually a parent but may be a grandparent or other relative. In a small number of cases the caregiver may be unrelated to the child. States are responsible for determining the level of benefits that a fancily will recede. The average benefit for a single parent family is$373 a month. The range among the states is from $120 to $762 per month. In fiscal year 1992 30 percent of child AFDC recipients were eligible because their parents were divorced or separated, 53 percent were eligible because their parents were never married, and 14 percent were eligible because a parent had died, was incapacitated or was unemployed. About 34 percent of the AFDC population had been receding benefits for less than one year; 19 percent had been receding AFDC continuously for more than five years. Under requirements of the Family Support Act of 1988, 20 percent of AFDC recipients were required to be participating in some type of work or training program in fiscal year 1994.(3)

The federal government has granted a number of states waivers from regular AFDC rules that are designed to support family formation. These include changing stepparent AFDC deeming rules (i.e., how the state considers stepparent's income when determining eligibility and benefit amounts) and denying single AFDC mothers additional benefits if they have additional children while on welfare. In some cases, these waiver changes apply to the entire state while in other cases, they apply only to selected counties. Evaluation results on the impact of these waiver policy changes are not yet available.

AFDC-UP. While the AFDC program is commonly thought of as a cash assistance program only available to single mothers with children, AFDC rules have permitted States to provide benefits to two-parent families with an unemployed parent since 1961. Known as the AFDC-Unemployed Parent (UP), this program was optional until 1990 and has always served a much smaller number of families than the basic AFDC program. About half of the States did not have an AFDC-UP program until mandated by federal law to do so; less than 10 percent of the total AFDC caseload are two parent families.

Although the Family Support Act of 1988 made the AFDC-UP program mandatory, it also allowed states that began such programs after September 1988 to limit participation to as few as 6 months in any 12-month period. As of 1992, 13 states had elected to offer the AFDC-UP program on a time-limited basis. It has been thought that unlike the basic AFDC program which could undermine marriage, the AFDC-UP program would eliminate the incentive to remain unmarried in order to be eligible to receive assistance and would encourage couples to remain married rather than divorcing to obtain AFDC benefits. In this context it has been argued that time limits may be a disincentive to remaining married since benefits are available for a relatively short time (6 months in any calendar year).

Opponents of the expanded AFDC-UP program have argued that providing UP benefits in any form undermines the role of parents as the primary support for their children. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) published a study in 1992 on the possible relationship between welfare benefits and family stability. The GAO study found that the presence of a UP program either decreased or had no effect on the growth of the number of one parent families receiving basic AFDC benefits. This study was based on a study of data trends in eight states over a 14 year period. The GAO developed a regression model to determine if changes in the basic AFDC caseload could be attributed to changes in UP policy. However, the GAO itself was not willing to generalize its findings to the non-study states.(4)

The AFDC-UP program has remained a small program compared to the basic AFDC program for one parent families in large part because the AFDC-UP program has stricter eligibility requirements. In addition to meeting basic income eligibility criteria, the principal earner in a two parent family must be classified as unemployed and have some specified, previous attachment to the labor force (defined in terms of work quarters). Unemployment is defined as working fewer than 100 hours in a month. Such requirements preclude young families and long-term unemployed families from eligibility for AFDC because they do not have the required work history. For example, a young couple with a child thinking of marrying, or even cohabiting, is discouraged from doing so because the family would not be eligible for AFDC-UP as a couple, but the mother and child would be as a single mother. In other words, they probably would be better off not living together or marrying.

The Family Support Act of 1988 authorized 8 state or local demonstrations to test a definition of unemployment that was easier to meet than the 100 hour rule and at least one demonstration to test the elimination of the 100 hour rule. As of May 1995, 21 states have approved waivers to alter or eliminate the 100 hour rule and 20 states have approved waivers to alter or eliminate the work history requirement. In some cases, these waiver changes apply to the entire state while in other cases, they apply only to selected counties.

AFDC Eligibility and Joint Custody. In order to recede AFDC the applicant for benefits must have the child in his or her care more or less full time-that is they must be the child's primary caregiver. While there are no federal regulations that address issues of custody and extended visitation, it is assumed that the parent applying for benefits has sole physical custody of the child. It is possible that a joint physical custody arrangement could result in the denial of eligibility for AFDC for the custodial parent and child since the applicant parent would not be the primary caregiver.


Basic MEDICAID Coverage. The MEDICAID program is a Federal-State partnership that provides health care to low-income individuals and families that meet certain eligibility criteria. While MEDICAID coverage is assured for families receiving AFDC, it is also available to individuals receiving SSI children who lye in families with income under 100 percent of poverty, low-income pregnant women, AFDC-UP families that have reached the time-limit on cash benefits and to some other medically needy individuals and families with low-incomes. While coverage is slightly broader than the coverage of the AFDC program, many of the same questions have been asked about the potential effects of the program on family formation and dissolution. Most specifically there has been concern that some families that are not eligible for AFDC-UP may break-up so that the mother can go on AFDC in order to eligible for the MEDICAID program.

Coverage for Pregnant Women The Deficit Reduction Act (DEFRA) of 1984 required states to cover certain pregnant women even though they were not receiving AFDC benefits. Coverage was mandatory for first time pregnant women and for pregnant women in two-parent families where the principal breadwinner was unemployed. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) 86 started a series of expansions that extended care to pregnant women not otherwise covered by MEDICAID. In 1986 care was extended at state option to any pregnant women with an income below a State established level but not more than 100 percent of poverty. OBRA 87 permitted states to provide such services to pregnant women with incomes under 185 percent of poverty and mandated coverage for pregnant women with income under 100 percent of poverty. In OBRA 89 this was extended to pregnant women with incomes under 133 1/3 percent of poverty. This expansion made it possible for single and married women not on AFDC to receive pre-natal and post-natal care.

Coverage of Poor Children. Included in the expansions for pregnant women and their newborn babies was an expansion of coverage for poor children. DEFRA required that states provide coverage to children up to age S (born after 9-3s83) that were not receiving AFDC but met the AFDC income and resource requirements. OBRA 86 allowed for states to provide coverage for children up to age one with family incomes under poverty and to incrementally increase coverage for children up to age five. OBRA 87 allowed states to accelerate the phase in of coverage for children and to cover children under age eight. OBRA 89 required states to cover all children with family incomes under poverty and to phase in coverage so that by 2002 all poor children under age 19 would be eligible for MEDICAID. While these provisions do not provide coverage for all members of poor two- parent households, they do insure that poor children can get access to care in two-parent as well as single parent homes.

Child Support and Birthing Costs. One of the issues which has created problems for some cohabitating couples and some couples who live apart is the requirement that AFDC and Medicaid-only recipients cooperate in the establishment of paternity and child support. For Medicaid-only recipients these cooperation requirements do not apply to pregnant women and women with infants. The issue is that some states and jurisdictions have cost-recovery policies which retroactively require the father to pay hospital costs. These cost are added to the child support award that may be retroactively established back to the date of birth. There are many instances when such cost recovery is proper, appropriate, and justified. But often the mother applied for AFDC and/or Medicaid because the father had no health insurance or income to cover the cost of health care.

The Food Stamp Program

Unlike AFDC and MEDICAID, the Food Stamp program could be seen as not having either a single or two-parent family bias. Eligibility for Food Stamps is based on household income. Single individuals, childless couples (mostly elderly), single parent households and two parent households are eligible for food stamps, if they meet the income test. The Food Stamp program does make it easier for single parent families to meet their basic needs, thus potentially contributing to lack of family formation and family or dissolution. However because the Food Stamp Program also provides similar support for poor two parent families it can be seen as encouraging poor families to stay together even when income is very limited.

Child Support Interactions

Diffenng Child Support Policies. Child support policies differ among various means-tested programs for low-income people -- AFDC, SSI food stamps, housing programs, and Medicaid -- and this creates differing incentives and interactions for custodial and non-custodial parents who participate in more than one. Some of these differences are at cross purposes.

For example, most of these programs consider the full amount of child support payments received by a household as income when determining eligibility and benefit levels. A few programs disregard some portion of the child support payment. Disregarding a portion of child support payments receded, as in the current $50 pass-through policy, encourages custodial parents to seek support from non-custodial parents, thus offsetting Federal and state assistance costs. Such a disregard is also believed to provide an incentive to the non-custodial parent because the children will be better off financial if child support is paid.

Under current law, AFDC and SSI are the only means-tested program that allow special treatment of child support payments received in determining eligibility and/or benefit levels. Child support payments received are considered income when determining eligibility for AFDC, but the first $50 of child support received each month is disregarded in determining benefit levels. SSI regulations exclude one-third of child support payments received from income for eligibility determination. The remaining two-thirds of the payment is considered unearned income, the first $20 of which is disregarded in determining benefit levels. For persons who receive SSI or AFDC or who are categorically eligible for either, Medicaid eligibility is automatic. Families that qualify for Medicaid services through the medically needed provisions, however, have no disregard for child support received or child support paid. As a consequence, a family that begins receiving child support could lose its medical benefits.

Under the current welfare reform bills under consideration in the Congress (H.R. 4 which passed the House of Representatives on April 24th, 1995 and the Senate Finance Committee bill which will be considered by the full Senate sometime in June) the S50 pass-through would be eliminated. H.R. 4 would not permit states to disregard any portion of the child support payment, although states would be able to disregard any other types of income they deemed would be appropriate. H.R. 4 and the Senate Finance bill would permit states to pass-through the states portion of child support collections to the family but not the Federal share.(5)

Child Support Arrears When Couples Reunite. Under current law, if a couple reunites, any child support arrearage assigned to the state remains due.(6) This is true even if the arrearage is for a period before receipt of AFDC benefits. For example, a couple with an infant divorces, then the women and child go on welfare because the father is not paying child support, at which time the father gets a good job and begins paying current child support. If at a later time the couple wants to reunite, the mother and child would lose AFDC (and possibly Medicaid) and the father would be liable for the arrears incurred many years before.

Double Counting of Income. Another general issue is the double counting of income: child support is considered income for the custodial parent and at the same time is counted as income available to the low-income, non-custodial parent seeking assistance through a means-tested program. Although the amount of child support paid is considered as part of the income available to the family or household, the payee cannot include as a part of his family or household any dependents that are supported by the child support payment. If both the custodial and non custodial parent are low-income and applying for means-tested assistance, the same child support payment is counted as income available to both the payer and the payee, thus reducing the government's outlays for both family units.

Thus, payment of child support can be easily viewed as a lose-lose situation for non-custodial parents with low income. If they pay child support, their income is so reduced that they cannot provide for their own basic needs (and those of any current family or household members that they also support). Additionally, payment of support does not lead to a better financial situation for their children living elsewhere, as many means-tested programs reduce benefits on a dollar-for-dollar basis. For the non-custodial parent, paying child support means that they are worse oft and their children are no better off, than if they did not pay it.(7)

In the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, Congress passed legislation to provide low-income non-custodial parents with some fiscal relief with regard to this issue. The new legislation does not change the criteria for determining eligibility for the Food Stamp Program -- any income used to make child support payments is included as income for the payer. But for those eligible to receive food stamps, child support payments will be deducted from income when calculating the amount of food stamp coupons to be received.

H.R. 4 contains a "stick" for payment for child support to balance the "carrot" provided in OBRA of 1993. In H.R. 4 any parent with child support arrears would be excluded from the household in determining the amount of food stamps for which the family is eligible. This policy may encourage fathers to pay support especially since they not only would retain for the household their share of the food stamp benefit, but could actually could increase the amount of food stamps the household receives. However, since at least sixty percent of these fathers currently have no earning the most likely outcome is that the food resources for these households will be diminished.(8)


The major issues associated with the tax system's treatment of non-custodial fathers and child support are the unavailability of the dependent deduction, the inability to deduct child support on income tax returns, and the inaccessibility of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The current tax system is also often criticized for creating a "marriage penalty" and thus "anti-family."

Marriage Penalty and Bonus.

The marriage penalty is the result of the graduated tax rates where people with higher incomes pay higher marginal tax rates. As a result two people may have a lower total tax liability if they do not marry and file separately than if they file jointly. Marriage penalties also arise for two people - one or both of whom have children and income - who are considering marriage and filing for the EITC. If their combined annual income is greater than about $28,000 they lose eligibility. If both are working and have and one or two children, their separate EITC's will be greater than their joint claim.

On the other hand, there is a "marriage bonus" for a working person with no children who marries a non-working person with children. For example, in 1996, a single man working at the minimum wage who marries an unemployed women on welfare with two children would qualify (under current law) for an EITC of almost $3,400.

Dependent Exemption.

The tax code allows only one adult or tax filer to claim a child for purposes of the dependent exemption. Support for the child is not pro-rated. To be claimed as a dependent, a person must be a relative or full-time member of the household and receive at least half of his or her support from the claimant. The claim of the dependent credit can be transferred by the custodial parent to the non-custodial parent. The non-custodial parent must attach a copy of the form releasing the custodial parent's claim to the tax return. Allowing only one filer to claim the dependent exemption reduces errors and simplifies administration. It has been shown to create problems, however, when the mother and father are separated/divorced, the child spends some time with both, and both provide financial support to the child. This has been shown to be particularly problematic in cases of joint custody.

In order to encourage payment of child support and continued involvement of both parents in their child's life some advocate having parents share the exemptions or credits. However, if custodial parents lose a share of their claim on exemptions or credits, it is argued they might pay more taxes and would have less money to support their children. While this notion may more accurately reflect the financial realities of family break-up, giving non-intact families more exemptions then the number of dependents they support raises equity concerns in that two-household families might be made better off than two-parent single household families.

It should be noted that a practice similar to this is not new to the child support enforcement system. Under current interstate procedures, the Federal Government pays incentives on the same collection twice, first to the state where the non-custodial parent lives and the support is collected, and a second time to the state where the custodial parent resides and the support is distnbuted.

Another option some have suggested is to develop a mechanism to give some type of dependent tax deduction or credit to the non-custodial parent when child support is paid in full. The tax code could be changed to create a partial deduction, such as 50 percent for one child, 60 percent for t vo children, etc. or it could give a tax credit modeled along the lines of the child care and dependent tax credit, where a percentage of the amount of child support paid is provided as a tax credit which decreases as the non-custodial parent's income increases. This option need not affect the way child support is currently treated for the custodial parent. Child support payments could still be tax free.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Only person can claim a dependent for determining eligibility for the EITC. The child must spend more than six months of the year with him or her and the child must be a son, daughter, adopted child, grandchild, stepchild or foster child. (A "foster child" is any child that lives with the claimant and whom the claimant treats like his or her own child.) The child must be under age 19 or a full-time student and under age 24. An adult child living with his or her parent and who is permanently and totally disabled may also be claimed for EITC eligibility.

Current evidence on EITC error, fraud, and abuse indicates that many non-custodial fathers are claiming the EITC even though they are technically ineligible. The participation rate is about 20 percent higher than appears appropriate. A great many of the misfilers are male single heads of households. There also is some evidence that the total number of child exemptions exceeds that estimated number of eligible children in the country. The IRS is attempting to improve enforcement and reduce errors and abuse by requiring Social Security Numbers for all children claimed for exemptions and the E1TC. They also are scrutinizing the returns of EITC claimants more thoroughly.

In order to encourage payment of child support and the continued involvement of noncustodial parents with their child(ren), some have argued that a partial dependent deduction for the non-custodial parent could be developed solely for purposes of the EITC. This would give low income non-custodial parents greater access to the EITC than they currently have. Again, one would want to give less than a full dependent deduction to the non-custodial parent, since one would not want to reduce the dependent deduction to the parent with primary responsibility for the child's well being.

Alimony and Child Support.

The tax system treats alimony and child support differently. Under current law, the non-custodial parent is responsible for all taxes on the child support obligation and child support payments are not considered income for the custodial parent. In the case of alimony, the tax advantage is to the noncustodial parent or paying ex-spouse. The alimony paid by a non-custodial parent is deducted from his or her gross income. The alimony is considered income to the custodial parent/ex-spouse and he or she is required to pay any taxes due on that income. It should be noted that alimony is awarded or agreed to in only about 15 percent of divorce cases, and that 10 percent of families with child support awards have alimony awarded as well.9

Some have argued that alimony and child support should be treated similarly for tax purposes. Allowing child support to be deducted from the income of the non-custodial parent may give that parent added incentive to continue the regular and full payment of child support. However, making child support taxable income would decrease the amount of income available to the custodial parent. Child support guidelines could be adjusted to take into account the tax transfer so there would not be a decrease in the amount of income available to the custodial parent.

Because of the numerous options for modifying the tax system, it is difficult to provide a simple estimate of costs and benefits-some scenarios would benefit certain groups while costing others; other scenarios would do the reverse.


There are many issues and views on child support guidelines and how they can and do affect the child, the custodial parent and the non-custodial parent. There are so many complex issues that most of the welfare reform proposals would authorize a separate child support guideline commission to be established. This discussion does not attempt to address the full complement of guidelines issues but focuses on key points that seem to provoke controversy between parents. Finding the proper balance of fairness for the children, the custodial parent, and the non-custodial parent is very difficult, but in the long run unless all affected parties perceive the child support system as fair and equitable, controversy over child support will increase the discord between parents and adversely affect child well-being.

Relationship between Child Support and Custody and Visitation

There has been ongoing concern within the child support community that issues of child support and custody and visitation not be linked together. Agreement is almost unanimous that there should be a legal firewall between the two issues. Non-custodial parents should not be able to use denial of visitation as an excuse for non-payment of support and custodial parents should not be able to use non-payment of support as an excuse for denial of visitation.

However, while separation of the issues may work as a legal procedure to bar visitation denial as a defense for non-payment of support and vice versa, custody, visitation and payment of child support are all related to the welfare of children. They reflect the ways in which divorced, separated and never-married parents fulfill their responsibilities to their children. It is not possible to discuss parental responsibility without discussing a child's need for both economic and emotional support from both parents. Child support reflects parents' financial responsibility. Custody and visitation reflect parents' emotional and social responsibility. Recognizing the inherent value of both parents financial and emotional contributions of support and the need to facilitate an atmosphere of cooperation is a significant first step in improving the well-being of children who do not live with both of their parents.

The Idea of Fairness10

In developing child support guidelines, states often want to make the guidelines as fair as possible to all affected parties - the children, the custodial parent, and the noncustodial parent. Often there is much controversy about the fairness of specific matters such as how income is defined and how particular expenses are treated. However, in understanding the guidelines it is important to consider concepts of fairness more generally and to understand that fairness is a relative concept--what's fair for the child may not be fair for the custodial parent and what's fair for the custodial parent may not be fair for the non-custodial parent. Two factors inherent in family dissolutions complicate the development of "fair" child support guidelines. First, when a household breaks up the family members can no longer enjoy the economies of scale that an intact family enjoys. Consequently, it is inevitable that the standard of living must decline for at least one of the two new households. A second problem is that both children and custodial parents benefit from higher levels of child support -- once a household receives income, it can be used to benefit all members of the household regardless of its source. The co-mingling of funds that inevitably occurs within a household, therefore, complicates any assessment of what is fair to children and what is fair to both the custodial and non-custodial parents. In developing guidelines, consideration should be given to alternative ways of distributing available f amily income in an equitable manner.

Because the purpose of child support is to address the needs of children, some support structuring guidelines in such a way that children are as well off after their family splits up as they were before. However, many consider this policy unfair for other reasons. Because families are likely to equalize well-being within the familiar, providing sufficient child support to maintain the child's level of well-being would also maintain the custodial parent's level of well-being. Thus, the noncustodial parent would be the only party whose standard of living declines, and he/she would bear the burden of maintaining not only the child's level of well-being but the custodial parent's well-being as well.

Others have suggested that child support guidelines ensure that declines in well-being are shared by both the custodial and noncustodial households. One such approach is to attempt to maintain the level of expenditures on children at the level that would have prevailed had the family remained intact and to divide this amount in proportion to the parents' incomes. However, if the labor force participation or income producing behavior of either parent changes as a result of marital disruption (or the formation of second families), it becomes difficult to determine what would have been spent on the children (and adults) had the family remained intact. Support based on current income may not correspond to the level of support provided prior to family dissolution. As a result, many feel that approaches which use the resources of both the custodial and noncustodial households to equalize the well-being of members of each household need to consider the economic changes that result from marital dissolution and the formation of second families.

Another approach that has been advocated is to allocate minimum amounts of income needed to meet the basic needs of each parent and then share any income in excess of the basic needs amount with children. One potential problem noted about this approach is the difficulty of establishing a single basic needs amount that is appropriate for all circumstances. Another problem is that at low levels of income, this approach may result in very low (and possibly zero) levels of child support because all of the parent's income is needed to meet his/her basic needs. Yet, it has also been argued that if noncustodial parents are unable to meet their own basic needs (such as food and shelter), then they are unlikely to be able to sustain employment in order to meet their child support obligations.

Finally, many concepts of fairness in the context of child support guidelines use as a benchmark the economic well-being of children in intact families prior to marital dissolution. Child support guidelines, however, also apply to cases in which the custodial parent, noncustodial parent, and child(ren) never lived together. As a result, concepts of fairness used to develop guidelines must take into account the equitable treatment of both marital and nonmarital cases.

The discussion above illustrates that fairness, as a principle, is not simple to apply. What is "fair" may differ depending on the goal or goals that are to be achieved. The complexity of fairness is greatly expanded when the considerations attempt to strike a balance between competing goals and interests. The child support system that may be the most fair may be one that recognizes that the dissolution of a marriage or the decision not to marry will adversely effect all parties and attempts to minimize the disruption to the child and holds both parents responsible for financial and emotional support.

Guidelines as a State Responsibility

Each state is required by law to develop it's own state child support guidelines. Federal law and regulations provide only minimum requirements. The guidelines must:

States must make the guidelines available to all who set child support amounts, there must be one guideline for the state, and states must review their guidelines every four years. This review must consider the cost of raising children and the extent to which the guidelines are being applied.11

However, while each state's child support guideline are distinct, there are currently three general types of child support guidelines in use.l2 The first is the percentage of income guideline, which is used in 15 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The percentage of income guideline establishes child support orders as a specified percentage of the noncustodial parent's income. The level of the order is independent of the level of income of the custodial parent.

The second type of guideline is the income shares guideline, which is used in 32 states, the Virgin Islands, and Guam. The income shares guideline establishes child support orders as a specified percentage of both parent's income. However, the size of the award also varies with the level of income of the custodial parent.

The third guideline, the Melson formula, establishes child support orders that require that both parents contribute (in proportion in their share of combined parental income) to the basic needs of the child after the basic needs of the adults have been met; the support order increases in proportion to the level of the noncustodial parent's income above the basic needs amount. Three states use the Melson formula.

There are a variety of ways in which each of these guidelines are actually implemented. States differ in terms of how income is defined (net income, gross income, or adjusted gross income). Many states also allow for additions to the basic support amou nt for unusually large expenses (e.g., child care, medical, and education) and/or deductions from the income on which support is to be paid (e.g., for previous support orders or health insurance). Other factors considered in some states are shared physical custody arrangements, extensive visitation, and second families. Finally, states differ in the percentage of income that they require the noncustodial parent to pay in child support. However, for middle income families under a broad range of circumstances, the three types of guidelines establish support orders that are very similar to one another.l3

Child Support Awards and Pavmentsl4

According to the latest Current Population Survey Child Support Supplement (CPS-CSS), there were 11.5 million custodial parents living with their own children in the United States under age 21 in 1992. Eighty six percent were custodial mothers and 14 percent were custodial fathers. Not included in this count of families potentially eligible for child support were children not living with either biological or legal parent but who may have been eligible for child support from one or both parents.

For calendar year 1991, the average child support award was $3,321 per year. Awards for custodial mothers were slightly higher at $3,375 per year, while awards for custodial fathers were lower, $2,715 per year. Fifty six percent of custodial mothers and 41 percent of custodial fathers had child support awards. Awards rates varied significantly by marital status, by poverty status and by the sex of the custodial parent. Poor, never-married fathers had the lowest rate of awards at S percent, followed by poor never-married mothers at 25 percent. Award rates differed by race as weld The lowest award rates were for poor, African-American fathers (11 percent) and poor, hispanic women (25 percent). Because the CPS-CSS is a national survey and each states' sample is fairly small, it is not possible to determine differences in average award rates by state and by other characteristics known to be associated with the amount of the award on a state by state basis.

Two-thirds of custodial fathers and half of custodial mothers indicated that they did not have an award because they had not pursed an award or did not want one. Eighteen percent of fathers and 16 percent of mothers said that the other parent was unable to pay. Twenty-one percent of mothers and 4 percent of fathers said they did not have an award because they were unable to locate the other parent.

At least some child support was received by 63 percent of all custodial parents due payments. Seventy-six percent of custodial mothers with payment due received some payment compared to 63 percent of custodial fathers. Twenty-four percent of mothers and 37 percent of fathers received no payment. The mean amount of payment received (for those with some payment) was $2,961. The mean payment for custodial mothers was $3,011.The mean payment for fathers was $2,292. On average these payments represented 17 percent of custodial mothers' income and 7 percent of custodial fathers' income.

The 1992 CPS CSS did find that for those with awards there appeared to be a relationship between custody and visitation and child support receipt Child support payments were more common among parents that had joint custody and/or visitation privileges than by parents who had neither. Of the 4.4 million parents with custody and/or visitation privileges, 79 percent paid some or all of the support they owed compared to 56 percent of the parents who had neither. A higher percent of noncustodial fathers with joint custody paid child support (85 percent) compared to fathers with visitation privileges only (79 percent) or fathers with neither (56 percent). However, the payment rate for mothers with visitation only or joint custody were the same, about 65 percent. There were too few women with neither visitation or custody to determine a payment rate. However, it must be noted that there is no basis for assuming causality based on this study alone. It is possible that both the decisions on custody and visitation and the decisions on child support are based on individual characteristic, family dynamics or other variables not measured by this survey.

Variance in Child Support Guideline Amounts

Several studies have found that there is a growing discrepancy among state guidelines as they are applied to noncustodial parents at the low and high ends of the income distribution. Based on a comparison of guideline results for families with different levels of income, a non-custodial parent with an income of $8,600 per year could pay $25 in child support or $327 in child support, depending on the state in which they lived.l5 One of the potential reasons for the discrepancy at the low end is that some states incorporate a self-support reserve (for both parents) which is deducted from income prior to the application of guidelines. If the income is below the self-support reserve, than a nominal support award is set. Self-support reserves are based on the notion that an adult has to have enough income to cover basic necessities such as shelter and food in order to maintain employment. Self- support reserves are generally set no higher than the poverty level for a family of one, although the basis for support adjustments for low-income non-custodial parents varies across the state.16

While there is some indication that the amounts low income fathers are required to pay have been decreasing, studies of the relationship of income to support award amounts have found that low income fathers pay a higher percentage of their income in support than do middle and upper income fathers.l7 In one study, non-custodial fathers with median incomes below $10,000 pay 20 percent of their gross personal income in support, fathers with incomes between $10,000 and 20,000 pay 16 percent, and fathers with incomes above $40,000 pay about 8 percent of their gross income in child support.l8

This inverse relationship between ability to pay and payment of support may simply be indicative of the tendency for state guidelines to reduce the percentage of income owed as incomes rise or as parents' incomes are more comparable. But some have argued that low- income fathers are less likely to have lawyers or any advocate for their interests within the child support system, and therefore are more likely to have the guidelines more rigidly applied.

An important limitation of this data however, is that it includes all levels of payment, much of which reflects child support orders in effect before guidelines were made presumptive. Presumptive guidelines may decrease the proportional difference in support across income levels. Simulations on state guidelines have indicated that the burden on non-custodial parents is relatively similar across income levels. For example, non-custodial parents with incomes of $15,000 and custodial parents with incomes of $10,000 paid from 15 percent to 35 percent of income (depending on the State), compared with 17 percent-33 percent when the non-custodial parent earned $30,000 and the custodial parent earned $15,000, and 16 percent to 31 percent when the noncustodial parent earned $35,000 and the custodial parent earned $25,000.l9

Offsets to Guidelines for Extraordinary Visitation and Custody Expenses

Twenty-seven states allow for deduction of extraordinary or extended visitation or joint custody expenses as a deviation from child support guidelines; a few other states allow high visitation expenses to be deducted before guidelines are formulated.20 Many have argued that it is fair to allow non-custodial parents who spend extended times with their children, or who live long distances from their children, to have their expenses taken into account when formulating the guidelines.2l Others argue that such allowances should only be given when visitation or joint custody is actually exercised. They say it would be undesirable to allow non-custodial parents to use visitation and custody to erode support amounts if not fully justified.22

Transportation Expenses Related to Custody and Visitation

One factor that could be taken into account in setting award amounts is the cost of transportation required for parents to exercise their visitation and/or custodial responsibilities. According to the 1992 CPS-CSS about 33 percent of non-custodial parents live in a different state, a foreign country or their current location is unknown. Parents may still live far apart even when they live in the same state. Data from the National Survey of Children indicated that about a third of children ages 11 to 16 where the non-custodial parent's location was known lived further than one hour's drive away. In this study children who live within an hour's drive were twice as likely to see the non-custodial parent weekly than were children who lived farther away (31% versus 16%). The effect of transportation costs may have less of an effect when weekly contact is not being maintained. For children who saw their fathers at least once a year but less often than weekly, distance was not related to the frequency of contact When parents live far apart the costs involved in maintaining contact are generally greater.

There have been no national studies of how transportation expenses are handled within the context of child support orders and the frequency and circumstances under which transportation expenses are considered. If there is joint physical and/or legal custody some court orders forbid parents from moving without the courts' permission. When there is sole physical custody and no joint legal custody neither parent has a legal obligation to consider the impact of the move on the parental access. When either parent moves, the child is put at a disadvantage since access to one parent will be reduced.

Retroactive Support Establishment

Retroactive support establishment means setting the start of the support obligation back to the date of a child's birth in non-marital situations or to the date of marital separation or dissolution, even if no action to obtain paternity and/or support was taken until a much later time. Generally speaking, support obligations and modifications are only retroactive back to the date that the custodial (or non-custodial parent) filed a petition with the court (or administrative agency) for establishment or modification of an order of support.

Retroactive establishment of support is most frequently sought in AFDC cases, when the state is the beneficiary of such support arrears. The state and Federal rationale for such support action is that AFDC costs would have been avoided or reduced if the non-custodial father would have been paying his share of support. Critics point out several potential problems associated with retroactive establishment of support. Support paid for periods prior to AFDC receipt may be used to offset the repayment of public assistance costs, rather than the costs incurred by the mother during the period. Additionally, there may have been no previous interest or attempt by the mother to obtain the support; the non custodial parent may have been providing in-kind or informal support or may having been living with the mother and child but has no record of such actions; in some states the father may have been denied standing to pursue paternity without the consent of the mother, or the father may have been asked by the mother to stay away from her and the child.24

The practice of establishing retroactive support has been upheld by the courts which have ruled that even a private agreement between the parents regarding non-pursuit of support does not preclude the government from seeking such support on behalf of the child (even if it is the government which will actually receive the payment). However, many argue this practice adds to the distrust low-income men have of a child support system which appears to be interested in their roles as fathers only for the purpose of recouping welfare benefits.25

Non-Cash Support Contributions

Allowing non-cash support as a substitute for cash support has been vigorously opposed by many Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program operators and managers. This opposition stems from two concerns: first, cash support is what families need most and second, there is concern as to how to monitor or enforce such contributions.

Advocates of informal, non-cash child support schemes, especially those who work with young families, believe that such non-traditional child support payments strengthen the noncustodial parent's commitment to support the child even when the parent has no income. The parent's non-financial involvement may contribute to the child's sense of worth and may increase the parent's willingness to pay cash support when employment is found. There is also the feeling that this type of child support flexibility would make it easier for programs providing services to young noncustodial parents to form positive working relationships with child support agencies.

While it may be difficult for the CSE program to monitor these kinds of arrangements, there may be ways of combining such requirements within the framework of other services needed by young fathers. For example, a non-cash support arrangement could only be awarded by a court or administrative agency if there were an alternative program that could provide the needed case management services for the CSE agency.26

Downward Adjustments and Order Suspensions

Downward adjustment and order suspensions are at the heart of many of the conflicts between custodial and non-custodial parents and their respective advocates. Many custodial parents' groups contend that most non-custodial unemployment is short term or a deliberate attempt by the non-custodial parent to avoid paying support; therefore, no adjustments in the amount of support should be made to take such reductions in income into account. In contrast, non-custodial groups maintain that most unemployment/underemployment is beyond the control of the non-custodial parent and immediate action should be taken to suspend or reduce child support orders as soon as there is a reduction in earnings. The custodial parent maintains, "the children still need to eat"; the non-custodial parent counters with "I can't pay what I don't have."

The current federal rules on downward adjustment are clear-- downward adjustments must be made if a reapplication of the guideline indicates a substantial reduction in support. A substantial reduction is usually measured by a percentage change or a dollar amount. Such reviews do not have to be made more frequently than once every three years and states canestablish numeric thresholds which have to be met before any adjustment will be made. Because these CSE requirements only went into effect in the fall of 1993, it is too soon to assess how states will respond to requests for review and adjustments. To date, some state officials as well as many child support managers and line workers have been opposed to pursuing downward adjustments.

There are three issues in the states' handling of downward adjustments which should be addressed: the first is whether there should be a minimum elapsed time at reduced or no income before a reduction in support can be sought. Most spells of unemployment are short. For example, in June, 1993, the median time of unemployment was just over 8 weeks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many argue that it may not make any sense to require states to reduce support orders for short term spells of unemployment, especially since many individuals would have unemployment compensation or some fungible asset that could be used to cover living expenses. They argue that a mortgage or car payment isn't reduced when income is reduced, so neither should child support. Unfortunately, it isn't possible to tell in advance whether any given spell of unemployment is the beginning of a possible short spell or a long spell. For those with few assets or no unemployment insurance, it might not take long before significant arrearages would begin to accumulate.

The second issue associated with downward adjustment is whether there are ever circumstances under which the award should be suspended rather than reduced to the minimum support payment. Currently, most states have established a minimum order of anywhere from $25 to $100 a month. While minimum orders reinforce the notion that parents have an on-going responsibility for meeting the needs of their child(ren), such minimum amounts may do little for either parent or child as a way of meeting those needs. For example, if some one is in prison for 5 years, even a $25 a month award will become a substantial ($1500) arrearage, especially since post-prison employment is often not easy to find and keep.

The third issue is how to differentiate voluntary from involuntary unemployment. While most spells of unemployment may be involuntary, there is evidence that some non-custodial parents who do quit their jobs in order to avoid paying child support. It is argued that downward adjustments in support order amounts which are too easy to obtain may encourage, rather than discourage, such behavior. It may, however, be very difficult to correctly separate into distinct groups the non-custodial parents who avoid paying child support through voluntary unemployment from those whose unemployment stems from low skills and poor work habits, economic shifts, and lack of job availability.


Closely related to the issue of downward adjustment is the issue of arrears. Arrears result from the non-payment of some or all support which is due the custodial parent. Nearly all studies on the determinants of support link ability to pay--either in terms of total income or weeks employed-with child support payment compliance. This does not mean that all high income fathers pay all the support which is due or that most low- income fathers don't. However, since the availability of income is closely related to payment compliance, it is critical that downward adjustments be processed in a timely fashion so that the accumulation of arrears can be minimized. Note that at least one study indicates that some couples make informal adjustments to the support order based on the current financial circumstances of the parties. Such informal adjustments are not possible when support is paid through the court or the CSE system.

Federal law precludes the retroactive reduction of arrears for any reason. Several years ago in a Michigan case, the Michigan Court ruled, based on state and federal law, that the obligor was required to pay all child support arrears to the obligee, even though the obligor had one child in his custody during the period that the arrears accumulated. The rationale for the decision was that the changes in custody should have been made through the legal system that had made the underlying custody determination.28

While federal laws continue to be proposed and enacted to eliminate any loopholes that may remain in the laws prohibiting retroactive modification of arrears and the discharge of arrears during bankruptcy proceedings, advocates for low income fathers have begun to question a totally non-discretionary policy on arrears. These advocates indicate that states are not very timely in processing downward modifications. They argue that the presence of large arrearages act as a disincentive to fathers' cooperation with and participation in the child support program, as does the knowledge that these arrearage payments will not go directly to their families, but will in fact go to reimburse the state (in AFDC and former AFDC cases).29

Second or Step-families

The number of step-parent families and second families is very large and growing. The number of remarriages among non-African American men and women is dramatic--half of the divorced women remarry within S years; 66 percent within 12 years. Almost 80 percent of the divorced men have remarried within 10 years.30 Most states factor in pre existing child support orders when assessing new child support orders, but few take into account step-families, second families or new spousal income. Nineteen states have guidelines that reflect the needs of subsequent biological or adoptive children, step-children and second families. Only two states take the subsequent spouse's or adult household partner's income into account.31 Taking into account the presence and needs of prior and subsequent families adds complexity to the development of child support guidelines. Ignoring these obligations may lead to higher awards for some children but parents may be less willing to pay support that results in inequities among their children.32 33

Multiple Orders in Effect

Due to interstate child support enforcement activities, it is possible for multiple orders for the same child(ren) to sometimes exist simultaneously in different states, causing complications for some parents who have moved out of the state of original jurisdiction. This problematic situation can occur because there is no provision for exclusive jurisdiction in child support cases. While it would be unusual for amounts paid under the lesser of the two obligations not to be given credit toward the fulfillment of the obligation under the higher order, the difference between the two orders can still accumulate as an arrearage, even if the lower order is the most recent action. Some of the welfare reform proposals currently under consideration by the Congress include provisions that would resolve the problem of multiple child support orders.


No Fault Divorce

In the 1960's and the 1970's no-fault divorce was believed to be the answer to the hostility and animosity generated as a part of the traditional divorce process. No fault divorce was supposed to reduce the time and cost of a divorce and most importantly reduce the level of conflict between the divorcing partners. Of particular concern was how extensive conflict between divorcing parents sought adversely effect the well-being of children. By the early 1980's almost all states had passed some type of no-fault divorce laws.

No-fault divorce is now under attack from many fronts. Lenore Weitzman in the Divorce Revolution blames no-fault divorce for the decreasing amount of child support awarded and to the overall diminished economic prospects of divorced mothers and their children.34 In contrast, David Blankenhorn in Fatherless America raised concerns that attempts to improve divorce only mask the inevitable decline in children's well-being, in essence that the search for better divorce "amounts to our further acceptance that fatherhood in our no longer necessary or possible for all or even most of our children." 35 In another article Blankenhorn calls for a reversal of the no-fault divorce laws. He says that "legislatures should consider moving away from easy, no-fault divorce, especially when the divorce is contested and minor children are involved."36 While no state has yet to reverse the status quo of no-fault divorce, the idea that divorce may be too easy (or that marriage may be more important than the pursuit of individual happiness) has become a common theme across the political and social spectrum of the United States.37

Expense and Length of Custody and Visitation Proceedings38

Like child support, custody and visitation proceedings can be lengthy and expensive. It is often the parent that can out-spend or out-wait the other that is able to control the process. Most parents, custodial or non-custodial, cannot afford to carry-out long protracted custody battles. According to one author, adjudicated custody disputes can cost between $30,000 and $300,000 and can take up to three years to resolve. Moreover, where such battles occur, it is most often the child that loses.

In most jurisdictions custody and visitation issues are settled by agreement of the divorcing parties in more than half of all cases. When contested, a minority of custody cases actually go to trial-about 15 to 20 percent. California has reduced that proportion to between 1 and 5 percent with the introduction of mandatory mediation. Four other states have a mandatory mediation process for custody and visitation disputes: Maine, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin. Mediation is also available on a discretionary basis in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Louisiana. There is a growing belief that mediation helps parents reach mutually acceptable agreements and can reduce the harmful emotional and financial effects of protracted judicial proceedings.

Pro se Representation

One of the recent trends in child support and custody matters is pro se representation, that is, the parents represent themselves in court rather than retain private counsel. In some jurisdictions, pro se representation has a long history in family court matters. In other jurisdictions, many argue that it has been primarily used as a way of avoiding perceived conflicts of interest by CSE lawyers when non- custodial parents request a downward modification of the support order. Proponents of pro se representation argue that it decreases the cost of any modification of a support, custody or visitation order. Opponents of pro se representation believe it is problematic when one party has a lawyer and the other does not, and that courts have to be extremely sensitive to the potential impact of unequal representation.39

Policies on Access

Access policies are set at the state level. There have been no published comprehensive reviews of state access laws and practices. Like child support awards prior to the establishment of mandatory state guidelines, there is no federal requirement for consistency within a state or even within a judicial jurisdiction on how custody and visitation decision should be made or enforced. In some states, interactions between child support guidelines and custody and visitation may provide some levels of consistency, but only with regard to the setting of the child support award once the custody and visitation decisions have been made. In several states non-marital fathers do not have standing to pursue establishment of legal paternity without the mother's permission. At least one state has laws that restrict a non marital fathers to have to overnight visitation until the child is three years old. A national review of state laws, policies and practices in this area would help provide a basis for discussion.

One area where the federal courts have ruled is in the rights of non-marital fathers to have access to their children. In a series of four decisions in the 1970's and the 1980's, the Supreme Court ruled that non-marital father who actively seek and assume parental responsibility and can show a substantial relationship with their children have constitutional protections of their parental rights. However, the courts have not afforded such protection of parental rights to all unwed fathers. Fathers who have not meet the test of seeking and establishing a substantial relationship have few if any protections, even if information of the pregnancy is withheld from him. One apparent contradiction is that under federal and state laws a father's financial obligation may be based entirely on the alleged biological tie but the courts are only willing to protect his right to seek custody or veto an adoption if he has demonstrated parental interest.40

Paternity Establishment

There is currently a significant public policy effort to increase the number of children who have paternity established. Paternity establishment is viewed by many as important for the well-being of children for several reasons. First, it is argued, the establishment of paternity provides to the child a visible sign of his father's willingness to accept the role of "father" to the child. Second, it provides the father with a basis for pursuing a legal relationship with the child, i.e., to seek custody and visitation. Third, paternity establishes a legal basis for a parent's responsibility to provide for a child's financial support. Lastly, legal paternity provides a child with access to the parent's economic resources such as health insurance, life insurance, disability and survivor benefits and the right of inheritance.4l

Out-of-wedlock childbearing has now reached about 30 percent of all births. In 1992 over 1.2 million children were born in non-marital circumstances.42 Current estimates are that about 60 percent or 9.5 million children born out-of-wedlock between 1978 and 1994 have not had legal paternity established.43 Because of the rapidly increasing rates of out-of-wedlock child bearing, government efforts through the Child Support Enforcement program have barely been able to keep pace with the rising numbers despite average annual increases in paternity establishment of 15 percent per year.44 It is too soon to evaluate whether the in-hospital paternity establishment programs mandated under OBRA of 1993 win be able to address the increasing numbers of children needing paternity establishment. Preliminary reports from the states indicate that the programs establish paternity for anywhere from 25 percent to 75 percent of children born out-of-wedlock. Many of these cases may be families that are cohabitating or that would have otherwise sought or readily established paternity when given the opportunity.

While there is broad agreement that paternity establishment is in the best interest of the children, there are some concerns about the current policy. Charles Murray has been an outspoken opponent of paternity establishment suggesting that the right of the mother to support and the right of the father to custody and visitation should be reserved for children born within marriage.45 Some women's advocates have also expressed concerned that women should have the right to determine whether paternity establishment is in their own or the child's best interest. They argue that programs, especially those that target parents at the time of child's birth, could be considered coercive since the mother is bound to be emotionally vulnerable. Lastly, there is concern that the issue of custody and visitation remain unresolved under voluntary paternity establishments. Some fathers' advocates have concerns that many of the current paternity establishment affidavits provide a clear statement that acknowledging paternity provides a legal basis for pursuit of a child support order, but provides no similar basis for pursuing custody and visitation. On the other hand, some lawyers have also expressed their reservation that without an immediate adjudication of custody, either parent can take the child and disappear.



The low-wage labor market seriously undermines the ability of many individuals to provide adequate support for themselves and their families. All types of families are negatively affected by the effects of the low-wage labor market. Poverty rates are extremely high among single parent families, about 48 percent of all female headed families are poor. However, while the rate of poverty among two- parent families is only 8 percent, about 36 percent of all poor children live in a two-parent family. The low-wage labor market negatively effects many low-income noncustodial parents as well. It is estimated that 19-39 percent of noncustodial fathers who did not pay child support either lived in a poor family or had personal incomes below $6,800. Almost 90 percent of noncustodial fathers who were poor or had extremely low incomes in 1990 did not work or worked intermittently that year.47 This section provides a description of employment and training policies and programs for low wage workers.

Effects of the Low Wage Labor Market

Numerous scholars have expressed concern that the low-wage labor market is not conducive to family formation and that people are increasingly unable to support their children. There is some evidence that illustrates that the effects of the low-wage labor market may have had an adverse impact on family formation. There is a correlation between the increase in female-headed households and declining economic position of non-college educated males. Research with CPS data indicates a correlation between a decline in marriage rates among non-college educated males and the decrease in their earning power48.

A popular hypothesis advanced by William Julius Wilson and his colleagues is that the decline in employment among young African-American men has caused marriage to decline sharply. Using an index he developed, Wilson has found that there are under 50 employable males per 100 women among non-whites in the 20-24 age cohort. Further, between 1973 and 1991, average earnings by males 20-23 fell by 31 percent and by over 40 percent for those without a high-school diploma. Many of these individuals are fathers outside of marriage and are legally obligated to financially support their children.

These economic trends affecting males may contribute to increased welfare dependency among young unmarried women. Since changes in family status, especially marriage, account for over half of the exits from the AFDC program, trends that result in a diminished earnings capacity for young men might also affect their rate of marriage, leading to an increase in the number of single parent families. African-American families, particularly young unmarried parents, are more disproportionally affected by such trends. Although mother-only families are growing at a faster rate among whites and falling among blacks, mother-only families are a higher proportion of African-American families with children (58 percent) than white families with children (20 percent).49 This is due to the decline in fertility rates among warned African-American women, increase in fertility rates among unmarried African-American women, and increase in the proportion of African-American women who never marry.

Significant numbers of noncustodial parents, particularly young unmarried fathers, face increasing difficulty in providing financial assistance to their children. Many policy makers believe that more effective child support enforcement measures would result in increased payments to custodial families, thus helping to alleviate poverty among those families.50 Since many individuals in the age 20-24 cohort lack a complete high school education and job skills, and earn little or no income, the potential impact on family poverty from stepping up child support collection efforts may be overestimated. Despite the fact that non-custodial fathers express a desire to contribute financially to the well-being of their children5l, many are simply unable to do so.

Employment and Training Programs

Policy makers have pointed to employment and training programs as a potential means to address the needs of both custodial and non-custodial parents. Employment and training programs have multiple goals: (1) to increase earnings; (2) to improve the well-being of children; (3) to decrease dependence on public aid; (4) to decrease government outlays; and (5) to increase the productivity of the labor force. Unfortunately, since employment and training programs typically do not collect data on the family status or obligations of their male participants, it is not known how many married or unmarried fathers are sewed by them.

The 1960s saw the creation of the federal employment and training system which funded programs originally geared to meet the needs of disadvantaged adult males. The Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA) of 1962 included funding for such programs as Community Action Programs, the Jobs Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Adult Basic Education, Work Experience Program, and Public Service Career Program.

In the 1970s, there was a growing emphasis on designing programs specifically to serve disadvantaged youth, primarily young men. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program greatly expanded federal investment in employment and training programs. However, reports of fraud, waste and abuse critically undermined CETA's reputation and Congress eliminated CETA in 1982, and replaced it with the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA). JPTA represented a major shift in program philosophy and responsibility which included administrative involvement by the private sector, increased emphasis on performance standards and limited resources, and prohibited funds from being used for public service employment.

Although early employment and training programs provided services to more males than females, there has been an increasing emphasis on providing employment and training to women. Most of this shift has occurred within the context of welfare reform and the desire to reduce welfare dependency by providing welfare mothers employment and training as an avenue to self sufficiency. The Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) program, created by the Family Support Act (FSA) of 1988, significantly increased resources for education and training for welfare mothers.

Among noncustodial parents, there are generally two groups: (1) those who have the ability to pay child support and for whom volition is the principle barrier to paying support, and (2) those for whom the ability to pay is the principle barrier to paying support. Currently, few programs exist to help young unwed fathers who lack the ability to pay. Those that do exist are small, widely dispersed, and not tied to major funding sources, thus services are inconsistent and generally non-existent. Most remaining employment and training programs are not designed to specifically meet the needs of noncustodial parents. The JOBS program was specifically designed to help custodial AFDC recipients to attain self-sufficiency through participation in mandatory education and training programs. The current welfare reform debate is focused on a discussion of which policies should be pursued to best increase the work effort of custodial AFDC recipients. Many note that efforts and discussions dealing with non-custodial parents, however,-have been absent from the larger debates. Some researchers have pointed out that the focus of the discussions should also be on unwed fathers52.

Programs for noncustodial parents, usually fathers, are a relatively new component of welfare reform efforts. Early results show that it is feasible to operate and involve a large number of fathers in these programs. Enhancing the labor market position of noncustodial fathers is an important but also a relatively new aspect of welfare policy. Some programs now focus on noncustodial fathers, seeking to increase both their regular payments of child support and their earnings potential. These efforts require fathers to support their own children, and some also provide employment and training services and other supports to help them become self-sufficient. Currently, there are no impact results of these programs. However, it is hoped that this strategy will increase the earnings and living standards of fathers of children receiving AFDC, translate these earnings into increased child support payments, and, ultimately, both improve the well-being of their children and reduce welfare dependency.

While some programs that have tried to work with noncustodial fathers have had difficulty recruiting and keeping fathers in the program, two show more promising results: The Parents' Fair Share Demonstration project and the Children First Program. The Parents' Fair Share Demonstration features child support enforcement, employment and job skill training services, and parenting and peer support services for noncustodial parents. An implementation study of the program found that: (1) the program was feasible to operate, (2) approximately two-thirds of the fathers participated and many of these were actively engaged in these activities, (3) the peer support groups were an important aspect of the program, and (4) the process of referring eligible fathers to the program "smoked out" many noncustodial parents who had unreported income and chose to pay their child support rather than participate in the program. In addition to the Parents Fair Share Demos, 13 states have approved waivers from the federal government to provide some noncustodial fathers (i.e., usually those with significant arrears) JOBS services or mandate participation in a work program in selected counties.

Children First, operating in selected Wisconsin counties, is designed to motivate noncustodial parents who are delinquent in child support payments to find jobs. It has a strong mandatory work requirement -- fathers must pay child support, perform community service, or face incarceration. One county also provides job skill training services. Early reports from Children First indicate that there is a smoke-out effect for some fathers, while others are motivated to find jobs when they are faced with the threat of jail.

Parents' Fair Share and Children First suggest that support services may be important for noncustodial parents and that a strong threat can gain the cooperation of some fathers. If some noncustodial fathers of AFDC children can be smoked out by strong enforcement, then limited resources can be devoted to more intensive training and services to improve the earning potential of the rest. However, it remains to be seen whether these programs will translate into positive impacts on their earnings, relationships with their children, parenting skills, and regular compliance with child support obligations.


  1. For a full discussion of this issue Parrott, Sharon and Greenstein, Robert, Welfare, Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing and Poverty: What's the Connection? Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Washington, D.C.: 1995.

  2. Tracy Thompson, "Childbearing Emerges as the Dividing Issue", Washington Post, June 4, 1995.

  3. From The 1994 Green Book, Committee on Ways and Means, July 15, 1994 and Characteristics and Financial Circumstances of AFDC Recipients. FY 1992, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  4. U.S. General Accounting Office. Unemployed Parents: An Evaluation of the Effects of Welfare Benefits on Family Stability, GAO/PEMD-92-19BR. Washington D.C.: April 1992.

  5. Under current law, if the state gets $200 in child support in a month, the family gets $50 in addition to its full AFDC payment. The remaining $150 in child support is divided between the Federal and state governments, based on the funding formula for the AFDC program. On average, the Federal government gets 55 percent and the state government gets 45 percent but the range for the Federal government is from 50 percent to 86 percent. Under H.R. 4, the family would not receive the first $50 in addition to its AFDC payment. Rather, the full $200 would be divided between the Federal and state governments. A state could pass-through to the family its share of the child support collection, but it would have to be used to reduce the families' AFDC benefit.

  1. This discussion is taken from Barnow, Bassi and Aron, 1990.

  2. Barnow, Bassi and Aron, 1990.

  3. This section was taken from Bureau of the Census, Child Support for Custodial Mothers and Fathers: 1991, Current Population Reports, Series P40, No 187. U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington D.C.: May 1995 (Advance Copy).

  4. Pirog-Good, Maureen A., Child Support Guidelines and the Economic Well-Being of Our Nations Children. Institute for Research on Poverty, DP# 997- 93. Madison,Wisconsin: February, 1993.

  5. The following states guidelines make no adjustments for low-income obligors: Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin (1992-1993 data on states obtained from Policy Studies Inc., Denver, Colorado).

  6. See U.S. Bureau of the Census. Who's Helping Out? Support Networks Among American Families. Current Population Reports, Series P-70, No.3. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 1988 and Sonenstein, Freya L. and Calhoun, Charles A. Survey of Absent Parent: Pilot Results. The Urban Institute for the Department of Health and Human Services, Washington D.C.: 1988.

  7. Sorenson, Elaine, Unpublished tabulations from the 1990 SIPP. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 1993.

  8. Barnow, Bassi and Aron, 1990.

  9. Arnaudo, David. "Deviation from Child Support Guidelines," (Draft) Office of Child Support Enforcement/Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C August 1993.

  10. Lewin/ICF, 1990, and Williams, Robert G., Development of Guidelines for Child Support Orders: Advisory Panel Recommendations and Final Report Office of Child Support Enforcement/ Department of Health and Human Services. Washington D.C.,1987.

  11. Getman, Karen A. "A Critique of the Effect of Non-Traditional Visitation and Custody Arrangements on Child Support Awards Under Current Guidelines and Formulas" in Essentials of Child Support Guidelines Development: Economic Issues and Policy Considerations Proceedings from the Women's Legal Defense Fund's Conference on the Development of Child Support Guidelines, 1986.

  12. Furstenberg, Frank F. Jr., Nord, Christine W., Peterson, James, and Zill, Nicholas. "The Life Course of Children of Divorce: Marital Disruption and Parental Conflict". American Sociological Review,48: 5:656-668, 1983.

  13. Mellgren in Lerman, Robert and Ooms, Theodora. Young Unwed Fathers: Changing Roles and Emerging Policy. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA:1993.

  14. Furstenberg, Sherwood, and Sullivan, 1992.

  15. See Office of Child Support Enforcement, The Changing Face of Child Support Enforcement:Incentives to Work with Young Parents. U.S. Department fop Health and Human Services. Washington, D.C.: 1990, and Pirog-Good in Lerman and Ooms, 1993.

  16. Peters, H. Elizabeth, and Argys, Laura M., "Testing a Behavioral Model of Compliance with Child Support Awards". University of Colorado (Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), 1992.

  17. Upton, Marianne Clifton. "The Bradley Bill Goes to Court: Some Recent Decisions on Retroactive Modification," Child Support Report Vol XII, No. 8, October, 1990.

  18. Furstenberg, Sherwood and Sullivan, 1992

  19. Folk, Karen Fox, Graham, John W., Beller, Andrea, "Child Support and Remarriage: Implications for the Econornic Well-Being of Children," Journal of Family Issues, Vol.13, No.2, June 1992, pp.142-157.

  20. Arnaudo, 1993

  21. Betson, David. Alternative Expenditures of the Cost of Children from the 1980 1990 Consumer Expenditure Survey. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, September, 1990 and Lewin/ICF, 1990.

  22. For a thorough treatment of this issue, see Takas, Marianne, The Treatment of Multiple Family Cases Under State Child Support Guidelines, Office of Child Support Enforcement, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.: July 1991.

  23. Weitzman, Lenore J., The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America. The Free Press, New York: 1985

  24. Blankenhorn, David. Fatherless America. Basic Book, New York, NY: 1995

  25. Blankenhorn, David "The Other America-Fatherless Children" in Family Affairs. Institute for American Values, Vol.6, No 1-2, Winter 1994.

  26. See Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe. "Dan Quayle Was Right", Atlantic Monthly April, 1993 and "Signs of the Times," Family Affair, Winter 1994.

  27. This section taken from Kelly, Joan B. "The Determination of Child Custody" The Future of Children, Vol 4, No 1-Spring 1994. Center for the Future of Children, The David and Lucille Packard 1995. Foundation.

  28. For a general discussion of pro se procedures see Landstreet, Eleanor, and Takas, Marianne, Developing Effective Procedures for Pro Se Modification of Child Support Awards, Office of Child Support Enforcement/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington D.C.: September, 1991.

  29. Ruth-Arlenc Howe, "Legal Rights and Obligations: An Unequal Evolution" in Lerman and Ooms, 1993.

  30. Esther Wattenberg. "Paternity Actions and Young Fathers" in Lerman and Ooms, 1993.

  31. Stephanie J. Ventura, Births to Unmarried Mothers: United States. 1980 1992., Vital and Health Statistics, Series 21, No. 53, National Center for Health Statistics/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 1995.

  32. Unpublished estimates from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation/Department of Health and Human Services. Constructed from vital statistics data, census data, OCSE administrative data and other sources.

  33. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Child Support Enforcement. Eighteenth Annual Report to Congress. Washington, D.C. 1995

  34. Times Newspapers Limited, November 14, 1993.

  35. This section is largely based on the following source documents:

    Dan Bloom and Kay Sherwood, "Matching Opportunities To Obligations: Lessons for Child Support Reform from the Parents' Fair Share Pilot Phase" MDRC, 1994.

    Mary Corcoran, "Rags to Rags: Poverty and Mobility in the U.S." University of Michigan, 1994.

    General Accounting Office, "Welfare To Work: Participants Characteristics and Services Provided in JOBS" GAO (HEHS-95-93), 1995.

    David Lah, "Work and Noncustodial Fathers" U.S. Department of Labor, 1993.

    Karin Mardnson, "Review of the Research Evidence on Employment, Education and Training, and Work Programs for Welfare Recipients" U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1995.

  36. Sorenson, Elaine. "Dispelling Myths About the Benefits of Increased child Support Enforcement." The Urban Institute, Washington D.C.: 1995.

  37. Andrew Sum, et al, "Withered Dreams: The Decline in Economic Fortunes of Young, Non-College Educated Male Adults and Their Families," prepared for the W.T. Grant Foundation Commission on Family, Work, and Citizenship, April, 1988.

  38. U.S. Bureau of the Census

  39. Sorensen, 1995.

  40. Furstenberg, Sherwood, and Sullivan, 1992.

  41. Ron Mincy "Child Support Enforcement and Deteriorating Employment Prospects of Young Black Males" The Urban Institute, 1993.