Nationwide, the child support program serves one-fifth of all U.S. children and one third of all U.S. children in poor families—totaling 14.7 million children. For families with child support orders, child support is one of the largest sources of income. Research shows regular child support payments reduce child poverty, promote parental responsibility and involvement, and improve children’s educational outcomes. 

State child support agencies are positioned to help low-income fathers meet their child support obligations. Agencies can increase child support payments from low-income fathers by positively engaging them from the birth of their children, encouraging them to continue being involved in their children’s lives and helping them overcome obstacles to supporting their children. Realistic child support orders, debt reduction strategies and employment-oriented programs for low-income fathers have been shown to increase child support payments.

Q: Why should child support enforcement agencies give fathers who don’t pay child support “a break” instead of putting them in jail or using other enforcement measures?
A: Child support agencies use their enforcement tools for fathers who actively evade child support. For fathers who lack the financial resources to pay support, strong enforcement measures often do not result in increased child support payments. These policies may keep fathers from participating in the formalized system, and in some cases, they prevent fathers from being engaged in their children’s lives. Developing policies that make it more feasible for fathers to pay support can help ensure they will pay continually over time.
Q: Aren’t child support policies set by the federal government, leaving the states with little discretion to decide on alternative policies?
A: Most child support decisions regarding establishing and modifying orders are a matter of state law or regulation. Federal law sets general guidelines regarding enforcement, but states can use their discretion to decide how orders are set and modified and when they are enforced. State legislatures can affect these policies by directly putting policy in statute, directing agencies to follow specific guidelines, or developing outcome-based performance measures for agencies to follow.
Q: What can child support agencies do if they find a father who can’t pay child support because he is unemployed or underemployed?
A: Agencies can modify support orders to make the current order more feasible and reflective of current earnings. Child support programs can also collaborate with state workforce development agencies and fatherhood programs to connect fathers to service providers who can help them find jobs or find better jobs. Courts can order employment or training programs instead of jail time for those who are behind in payments. States can also provide transitional subsidized jobs for those who are considered harder to serve, including recipients of public assistance, ex-offenders and other disadvantaged parents.
Q: Won’t lowering a support payment result in less money for the mother and child?
A: In most cases, the mother and child are not getting any support, so applying a downward modification can be an investment in ensuring future payments. It can help to establish a positive relationship between the father and the child support agency.
Q: Why should a state forgive part of a father’s debt? Isn’t that money he should be obligated to pay?
A: Depending on the amount of the debt, it may be unrealistic for a low-income father to repay massive amounts of past debts; in many cases, these amounts are thousands of dollars. Forgiving a portion of past debts also can help ensure future payments if fathers see repayment as a realistic achievement, reducing the likelihood that fathers will revert to providing “underground support.” Given the poor collection rates for this population, states have little to lose by trying a new approach.
Q: Won’t a state lose money if it forgives child support debt?
A: States are not collecting large amounts of money on state debt from this population. Essentially, they are spending money on enforcement with little cost benefit. Forgiving some portions of past child support debts may help generate future payments.