Revising Child Support Orders: The Wisconsin Experience

Article excerpt

In an effort to make Wisconsin's child support cases more equitable and up-to-date, old child support orders were reviewed. Only 21% of the cases were revised. he amount of revised orders increased substantially, a mean of $116/month (77%). An alternative method of keeping orders current is to express them as a percentage of the noncustodial parent's income; these orders are kept up-to-date automatically without a revision process.

One of the factors driving the current welfare reform debate is the idea that taxpayers are being asked to support children in poor singleparent families because parents who do not live with their children (generally fathers) are not providing them with adequate financial support. This linkage between the provision of private support for children (child support) and the public provision of this support (primarily Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC) has had a long history, with the first legislation that attempted to increase child support among AFDC recipients occurring in 1950. Over the next four decades, the link has been strengthened and formalized, particularly with the creation of the federal Child Support Enforcement (IV-D) agency in 1974, a public agency designed to help all custodial parents receiving AFDC and any other custodial parent who requested child support services.

The child support and welfare systems are again receiving attention as policymakers search for ways to shift responsibility for the economic support of single-parent families from the government to the noncustodial parent. As the child support system has been examined, most observers have concluded that it has significant problems (Garfinkel, 1992, for example). One problem is that noncustodial parents are not paying the amounts that they are ordered to pay: total child support payments in 1991 were $11.9 billion, compared to $17.7 billion due (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995). However, a larger problem is that many custodial parents do not have child support orders, and the orders that exist are often low and are seldom updated and, thus, do not reflect the current ability of the noncustodial parent to pay. Sorensen (1995) estimates that about $50 billion of child support could be collected if orders reflected current circumstances and were fully paid, in contrast to the $17.7 billion of current child support orders.

Some policies have been aimed at increasing the proportion of custodial parents who have child support orders. Other policies have been directed at ensuring that orders are kept up-to-date; the latter policies are the focus of this article. The 1988 Family Support Act (FSA; Public Law 100-485) contained the following provisions: At least every 3 years, states must review each AFDC case with a child support order to see if the order should be revised. The FSA also required that states contact any non-AFDC case in the child support system (IV-D cases) to obtain permission to review and potentially revise the order amount. State plans on how these provisions were to be accomplished were required by October, 1990, with full implementation required by October, 1993.

At about the same time, the Wisconsin legislature authorized the Wisconsin Order Revision Project, a pilot project designed to systematically review and revise old child support orders to ensure their adequacy. The Wisconsin legislation, like the federal legislation, required child support staff to review AFDC cases and to offer reviews to non-AFDC cases. Child support staff in 13 of Wisconsin's 72 counties reviewed old orders to determine if they needed to be revised; if the orders were found to be out-of date, the staff attempted to secure revisions. The Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) collected data on all cases considered for revision by child support staff. This article reviews the results of these efforts.

Prior to the FSA deadline for implementation, two other projects also tested the method of periodically reviewing child support orders. …