Low-Income Fathers Struggle to Pay Child Support

Fathers often define themselves by their relationships with their children, even if they don’t live together. Recognizing these bonds as critically important, federal “Responsible Fatherhood” programs promote responsible parenting, economic stability, and healthy marriage for custodial and noncustodial fathers. The U.S. Administration on Children and Families, which administers these programs, released a report last month on low-income fathers’ experiences.

According to the report, fathers were frustrated by their inability to meet child support orders; barriers to getting their orders modified; and lack of opportunities to see their children. Most fathers worked full time, but the combination of job instability and high obligation amounts trapped them in perpetual financial hardship.

While a majority of fathers were motivated to financially support their children, they couldn’t do so at the amounts required. This is consistent with recent national data. Seventy-four percent of custodial parents who were due child support in 2013 received payments; however, only 46 percent received full payments. In many cases, child support orders are deeply mismatched with low-income noncustodial parents’ incomes. According to an Urban Institute report, three-quarters of fathers who owe more than $30,000 have incomes below $10,000 annually. Oftentimes, low-income parents face underemployment, unemployment, or barriers to employment (such as housing instability and being formerly incarcerated).

Noncustodial parents understood the potential consequences of not meeting their obligations. States have the authority to “suspend or revoke drivers’ and professional or occupational licenses, garnish unemployment compensation, military retirement and other federal and state benefits, apply income tax offsets and property liens, freeze bank accounts, deny passports, and pursue criminal prosecution of nonpaying parents.” Consequently, it is critically important for noncustodial parents to have their orders modified. Yet only half were able to do so. Some fathers weren’t aware they had the option; others were told that their child support enforcement (CSE) office didn’t modify orders. Additionally, slow responses from CSE administrators or being forced to communicate via mail hindered or deterred other fathers from getting their orders modified. When orders are modified to an amount parents can afford, they’re far more likely to pay child support.

In some cases, child support enforcement prevented fathers from participating in activities that would have increased their financially security and made them more likely to support their children. For example, one father’s student financial aid was garnished and his driver’s license was taken away.

Child support payments are a valuable source of support for children and custodial parents. It’s certainly important that noncustodial parents make their child support payments. However, unrealistic orders don’t result in more money being paid; they only lead to deeper arrears and more barriers to stable employment. When orders are set at affordable amounts and fathers can modify orders when their finances change, children and parents both win. Child support enforcement regulations finalized last year require states to take parents’ ability to pay into account when setting orders. States should promptly review their policies and make productive changes.