Child Support is an Effective and Important Program for Families

For single-parent families, child support from non-custodial parents is a critical way to reduce poverty. The Child Support Enforcement program (CSE) serves 16 million children as well as 22 million parents and caregivers each year. A recent report from the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) highlights significant progress with the program over the past decade:

  • Total collections have increased to $29 billion—a $5 billion increase over 2006.
  • The rate of orders being established through the child support program increased from 77 percent to 86 percent from 2006 to 2015.
  • The rate of collections for all current support is 65 percent, while the rate for arrears (debt) is 64 percent—an increase from 60 percent and 61 percent, respectively, in 2006.
  • For every dollar spent on child support enforcement, $5.26 is collected—up from $4.58 in 2006.

OCSE credits the increased collections to state modernization and enforcement efforts, such as child support being collected from employers before paychecks are distributed and tax refund interception. OCSE also identifies its shift to a family-centered approach as a main factor in increasing collections.

The family-centered model consists of six activities; among them are engaging fathers, promoting economic stability, and ensuring meaningful health care coverage. Increasingly, child support agencies recognize that unrealistic orders lead to unpayable arrears, which does not help custodial parents receive any more money. In fact, it can actually interfere with non-custodial parents’ ability to support their children. Positive strategies states can implement include establishing and modifying orders so they are realistic, reducing debts owed by non-custodial parents, and intervening early when payment struggles arise.

Building on these approaches, OCSE has an opportunity to strengthen the child support program and implement administrative rules to support the family-centered model. In late 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released proposed administrative rules that would, among other improvements:

  • Require states to  establish realistic child support orders as well as modify orders when  a change is warranted;
  • Allow states to use child support funds to provide employment services to non-custodial parents so they can secure a job and make their payments;
  • Prohibit states from classifying incarceration as “voluntary unemployment” so that child support debts do not continue to accrue during periods of incarceration (making it nearly impossible for a non-custodial parent to meet their obligation upon release);
  • Allow courts to consider the availability of public health coverage through Medicaid or CHIP as meeting the requirement for non-custodial parents to provide health coverage to their children.

The proposed rules would further modernize the child support program, bringing effective state practices to the national level. HHS should finalize and implement them immediately to ensure the program can build on recent success with the family-centered approach.