Although child-support policies can help enforce child-support payments and increase the level of awards, their effects are very different depending on whether the children are born to unwed parents or to divorced or separated couples.
A new Cornell University/University of Colorado study finds that for unwed mothers, state child-support guidelines increase the probability of the mothers receiving child-support awards, often increasing the size of the awards.
But for divorced or separated women with children, the guidelines appear to have little effect in boosting awards.
"In fact, we found that awards for high-income divorced or separated fathers tended to be significantly below the guideline formulas," says Elizabeth Peters, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell. Her study, with colleagues from the University of Colorado, Denver, will be published later this year in the Journal of Human Resources.
Peters is a family policy expert who looks at how policies affect child-support awards and payments and father-child involvement.
With Laura Argys and Donald Waldman from the University of Colorado, Peters analyzed data on 1,171 women with children with absent fathers from the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Surveys of Labor Market Experience of Youth (NLSY79). The respondents were between ages 14 and 22 during the first interview in 1979 and were interviewed annually until 1994. The researchers used data up to the 1993 interview.
In a related study, the researchers also found that the majority of absentee fathers, both white and black, including unwed fathers, have more contact with their children than is commonly believed.
"In fact, when we control statistically for other factors, black nonmarital fathers pay less child support but have higher levels of contact with their children than comparable whites," says Peters in a forthcoming issue of Poverty Research News. She says that many unmarried fathers stay involved with their children but may not be able to afford making child-support payments on a regular basis.
Peters also has looked at the effects of coercive policies toward fathers versus policies that encourage cooperative interactions between parents.
Coercive policies that treat dads as "deadbeats" may not be the best way to increase child-support payments, says Peters. Many state paternity and child-support policies actually discourage parents from declaring paternity and reduce incentives for fathers to pay support.
For example, in many states, welfare payments are reduced by a dollar for each dollar of child support collected. Also, during the 1980s, states tended to use coercive methods to establish paternity.
"We now know such methods may increase court-ordered awards but have less of an effect on actual payments. As a result, states have begun to emphasize more cooperative methods of establishing child support and paternity, such as voluntary in-hospital paternity establishment by unmarried parents," Peters says.
"Recent research shows that children's well-being is enhanced when there is less conflict between the parents and fathers have greater involvement. As a result, many recent policies and programs have begun to emphasize the importance of emotional as well as financial support from nonresident parents," Peters says.
Between 1994 (the year after in-hospital paternity acknowledgment was mandated for all states) and 1998, the number of paternities established more than doubled. And in-hospital paternity accounted for 42 percent of all paternities. In addition, fathers are more likely to come to cooperative child-support agreements when they live in states that have adopted standardized formulas to determine award levels, Peter says.
Furthermore, the benefits of these new state guidelines go beyond the financial.
"When we looked at the impact of child support on child outcomes, we actually found a bigger impact on cognitive test scores when the child support was labeled as being awarded voluntarily rather than court-ordered," says Peters. - By Susan S. Lang
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