Faced with compelling evidence that current child support policies are not working, legislators from Washington, D.C., to Sacramento have taken action. In the nation’s capital, lawmakers recently approved the $160 million “Fathers Count Act,” an effort to encourage non-custodial parents to support their children financially and emotionally. Sacramento policymakers took bolder action last session, passing legislation that removes child support responsibilities from the state’s 58 county District Attorney offices and establishes a new Department of Child Support Services.
In the race to legislate a solution to the child support problem, however, little effort has been made to understand why the system breaks down so often for so many low-income families. Specifically, the perspectives and experiences of fathers have only rarely been heard.
In Child Support and Low-Income Families: Perceptions, Policies, and Practices, Maureen Waller and Robert Plotnick suggest reasons for child support system failure. Drawing on in-depth interviews with over 400 parents across the nation, Waller and Plotnick identify a fatal policy mismatch between the system’s assumptions and the experiences of low-income families. While the system is based on a traditional model of families with divorced fathers working full time, the authors find that many low-income fathers today were never married and work irregularly. Faced with this mismatch, low-income families often prefer informal arrangements to full compliance with child support and welfare regulations that they regard as unfair, counterproductive, or punitive.
Waller and Plotnick conclude that the child support system might gain greater compliance and legitimacy if low-income parents saw the system as beneficial to their children and supportive of their efforts to negotiate economic agreements as a family. They provide several policy options along these lines but acknowledge that these options might conflict with the key objectives and political realities of current child support policy. They argue, however, that in order for any child support policy to succeed, it must take into account the changing social and economic realities of low-income families.
A related survey by Maureen Waller – The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study baseline report from Oakland, California – is available at this web site. Please contact me – (415) 291-4436, firstname.lastname@example.org – or Maureen – (415) 291-4449, email@example.com – if you have any questions.
The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.