Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Falling through the Cracks: Gaps in Child Support among Welfare Recipients

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Falling through the Cracks: Gaps in Child Support among Welfare Recipients

Article excerpt

This article examines gaps in child support among welfare recipients in Wisconsin. Documented is the extent to which breakdowns at various stages-including paternity establishment, support orders, and payments-contribute to the low rate of child support receipt. Children were tracked over a 2-year period to assess their progress through the child support system over time. Few welfare recipients are able to successfully negotiate the child support system, and mothers frequently achieve different degrees of success with different children. The characteristics of children who drop out prior to obtaining a support order suggest that, with an order in place, they would be as likely to receive support as are those children who already have orders.

Key Words: child support, paternity establishment, single mothers, welfare reform.

In an era of time-limited public assistance, policy makers and politicians frequently express the hope that a stronger private child support system can replace income that has, in the past, been provided to low-income single parents through the welfare system. The expectation that noncustodial fathers would assume greater financial responsibility for their children was an important component of the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform and was clearly reflected in the 1996 welfare reform legislation. In addition to placing limits on the availability of cash assistance, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act included a variety of provisions designed to increase the efficacy of the child support system.

To what extent are welfare recipients able to successfully negotiate the child support system? Not surprisingly, the available evidence suggests that child support is an uncertain income source for this population. A recent General Accounting Office study focused on three states with short welfare time limits and found that only 20%-40% of families reaching their time limits had received any child support in the prior 12 months (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1998). National data are broadly consistent with this. For instance, data from the National Survey of America's Families show that only 22% of poor children on welfare received child support during 1996 (Sorensen & Zibman, 2000). Even in Wisconsin-a state widely considered to be at the forefront in child support enforcement-the majority of welfare participants receive no formal child support (Bartfeld & Meyer, 2001). Therefore, despite high expectations, child support has yet to become a widespread or dependable source of income for the welfare population.

Lack of child support is often portrayed in the popular press as a compliance problem-that is, a problem stemming from failure to pay support obligations. The reality, however, is more complicated. Receipt of child support is a multistep process, and parents fall out at multiple points along the way. In the case of nonmarital children, there are three key steps: a legal father must be identifled, a support order must be issued, and support must be collected. There is considerable interest among policy makers in understanding how welfare recipients and other low-income families fall out of the child support system and in the potential for collecting additional support on their behalf.

This article examines how welfare recipients in Wisconsin fare at each stage of the child support process. First, I illustrate the extent to which breakdowns at various stages contribute to the low rate of child support receipt among the welfare population. Second, I track children over a 2-year period to assess their progress through the child support system over time. Third, I illustrate the differences in child support outcomes that emerge when one treats mothers versus children as the unit of analysis. Finally, I estimate the likelihood that greater success at the intermediate stages of paternity establishment and support orders would translate into additional support payments. …

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