How the Child Support System Affects Low-Income Fathers


Dad and BabyNationwide, the child support program serves one quarter of all U.S. children and half of all U.S. children in poor families—totaling 17.5 million children.1 Child support is one of the largest sources of income for families. Research shows it reduces child poverty, promotes parental responsibility and involvement and improves children’s educational outcomes.  

The child support program is in regular contact with many low-income fathers and is uniquely positioned to help them meet their child support obligations. The program 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. Research shows that realistic orders, debt reduction strategies and employment-oriented programs for low-income fathers increase child support payments.

What Policymakers Need to Know What Policymakers Can Do
  • Guideline formulas that determine child support orders are a matter of state discretion and these guidelines can be formulated in statute.

  • Establish formulas and guidelines that take low-income fathers who owe child support into consideration.
  • Ensure that guidelines allow low-income parents enough income to meet their needs after their child support is paid.
  • Not all dads who do not pay child support are “deadbeat” dads. Some fathers lack the financial resources to pay mandated child support amounts.
  • Low-income fathers often face many barriers to employment: low literacy, few job skills and poor employment history.
  • Connect fathers with employment and training opportunities that help them to obtain employment and develop skills that provide wage advancement opportunities.
  • Establish child support orders that reflect a father’s real income.
  • Ensure that child support agencies develop partnerships with court systems, welfare agencies, workforce development programs and local service providers to assist fathers to meet their financial obligations.
  • Child support enforcement agencies were traditionally set up as cost-recovery agencies to reimburse the state for welfare payments. However, fewer than 15 percent of child support cases are currently receiving welfare assistance.
  • Child support agencies were not designed initially to deal with low-income parents who were never married.
  • Include services and referrals for families regardless of their involvement with the public assistance program.
  • Create customer service centers and web-based tools to allow fathers easier access to information about their case and the child support process.
  • Continue to devise policies to serve both parents as a family unit regardless of their marital status.
  • Current child support policy does not have effective mechanisms to distinguish fathers who evade paying support from those who would pay support if they had the resources. No longer is enforcement “one size fits all.
  • Use data to sort “deadbeat dads” from “deadbroke dads” and develop procedures that determine whether punitive enforcement, referral to services or modification is the appropriate course of action.
  • Granting a downward modification to low-income fathers may make it easier for them to make continuous child support payments.
  • Many fathers do not know they can ask for a modification, or what circumstances warrant a modification.
  • Develop customer service lines that can answer basic questions regarding modification procedures.
  • Ensure that fathers are aware that they can ask for a modification if their economic situation changes.
  • Ensure that agencies and courts have procedures to streamline the modification process.
  • Fathers often receive default orders if they do not attend their court hearing. Fathers avoid these hearings because they are fearful that the child support system is only interested in punishing them.
  • Many child support orders for low-income men are set because of a default order that may not take into consideration the actual wage earnings of a father, resulting in an order that is set too high.
  • Insist that child support workers establish proactive procedures that encourage fathers to come forward before the agency enters default orders.
  • Provide easy access to information about the child support system that helps both mothers and fathers navigate the court system.
  • Inform fathers about their rights and the child support proceeding before their court date to eliminate any misperceptions that could discourage fathers from attending.
  • Most families who receive welfare do not receive any collected support because the state retains this money to reimburse itself for money spent on welfare. Fathers view this as a disincentive to pay through the system.

  • Pass-through collected support to families—states can count these expenditures in their maintenance of effort.
  • Develop procedures that ensure welfare caseworkers adequately communicate the implications of assigning child support rights to the state in exchange for receiving welfare benefits.
  • One of the barriers that low-income men face in paying child support orders is the massive amount of unpaid support that can accumulate.

  • Compromise arrearages (past due payments of child support) for fathers who demonstrate compliance with payment plans or employment requirements.
  • Develop flexible policies regarding the accumulation of interest on arrearages.
  • Require that state agencies set welfare debt equal to the amount of a father’s support order.
  • Analyze how arrearages are set—retroactive to birth or to the date of a court proceeding—and craft policy that insures a father’s debt will be set at an amount he is likely to pay.
  • Many low-income fathers are present at their child’s birth and are in a serious relationship with the child’s mother.
  • Women may begin receiving welfare without disclosing the location of the father, though the father may be present within the house.
  • Conduct paternity establishment as early as possible. Suspend enforcement of an order if parents are cohabitating.
  • Connect families with services to assist them to develop parenting and relationship skills.
  • Conduct outreach to connect fragile families with services before they apply for welfare.
  • Connect families with services to assist them to become and stay employed to minimize the use of welfare.

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 well keep fathers from participating in the formalized system. 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 welfare recipients, 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 approac

Q: Won’t a state be losing 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.

*PLEASE NOTE: The National Conference of State Legislatures is an organization serving state legislators and their staff. We cannot offer legal advice or assistance with individual cases, but we do try to answer questions on general topics.


  1. Unpublished tabulations by the Urban Institute of the Census Bureau’s 2008 Current Population Survey-Child Support Supplement in combination with data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Child Support Enforcement, FY 2008 Annual Report to the Congress.

Contact Us

For more information or to request technical assistance on state or federal child support policies and programs, please send a message to Children & Families staff. As a membership organization serving state legislators and legislative staff, we do not respond to inquiries or provide legal advice related to individual child support or family law cases.