Six Strategies to Design Equitable Child Support Systems

BlogFamiliesFeb 1 2023

Child support provides a stable source of income for children whose nonresident parents[1] have moderate regular earnings, but many child support policies disproportionately harm families with low incomes in which nonresident parents have limited ability to pay support. The child support system’s tendency to focus on financial support while overlooking other critical factors for healthy child development—most notably, family relationships and diverse forms of parental support (such as parenting time)—has led to federal and state funding and program structures centered around financial support, including strategies to enforce child support orders that can disrupt family relationships. To equitably serve families with low incomes, child support systems should emphasize healthy child development, encourage parental support in all forms, foster parent-child and co-parenting relationships, and assist parents who struggle to pay support.

Child support currently serves 1 in 5 children in the United States, collecting $28 billion in financial support to families throughout the country in 2021.

Child support currently serves 1 in 5 children in the United States, collecting $28 billion in financial support to families throughout the country in 2021.

Child Trends’ three-part definition of child support equity gives greater priority to child development than the current system status quo. Equity within child support systems should mean:

  1. Supporting the diverse needs of each child (including social and emotional support, nurturing care, and financial support from parents)
  2. Ensuring that determinations of parental responsibility are proportional to parental ability and preventing undue burden to parents that harms both parents and children
  3. Helping families achieve the previous two outcomes through fair, unbiased, culturally sensitive policies and practices and by providing resources and accommodations to parents who face individual and systemic barriers to parenting

Based on this definition, two prominent challenges within child support policy and practice inhibit the equitable treatment of children and families of varying socioeconomic status:

Child support systems that rely on punitive enforcement measures against parents who cannot pay support often harm, rather than help, children of low-income parents. Many low-income parents contribute to their children’s upbringing by providing formal, informal, and in-kind support and by spending time with them. When parents cannot pay formal support in full—for example, when the child support order is high relative to the nonresident parent’s income—child support systems can take punitive enforcement measures against them. Such measures include relatively high interest rates on overdue support, revocation of drivers’ licenses, and, in the worst case, incarceration. Parents with low incomes and parents of color are disproportionately represented among those who have large child support debt and face stronger enforcement actions. Most child support systems do not address why parents do not pay or whether parents can support children in alternative ways (e.g., shared time).

Cost recovery efforts within child support systems promote differential treatment between children in families that receive public assistance and those that do not. In general, families can opt for an informal child support agreement, a private formal agreement, or a child support order that can be enforced by the child support system. However, low-income families on public assistance (including those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF]; Medicaid; and, in some states, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] and child care subsidies) are required to cooperate with child support enforcement to establish child support orders as a condition for benefit receipt and to assign their right to child support to the state. Many states then use some or all child support collected from nonresident parents to reimburse costs of their TANF programs; in this case, TANF families receive only partial or no child support. Since receiving support is associated with increased parent-child contact, this policy may disrupt family relationships.

To address these inequitable child support policies, we urge policymakers and program administrators to consider the following six recommendations:

  • Emphasize support for the entire family. Child support systems should shift organizational priorities away from top-down enforcement to recognize diverse forms of parental support and family relationships. For example, they could educate parents about shared placement, help them plan for co-parenting, recognize in-kind support, provide legal assistance (especially to low-income parents), and engage parents in promoting the well-being of their children.
  • Establish and modify child support orders according to parents’ ability to pay support. Child support systems should adjust child support order amounts to nonresident parents’ ability to pay, avoid income imputation (i.e., an income level presumed by courts) by engaging parents in the establishment of orders or using income data that exist in administrative databases, and streamline procedures for timely modification of orders as incomes shift.
  • Identify and address the causes of noncompliance and limit punitive enforcement. Before taking punitive action, systems should seek to identify reasonable causes for noncompliance (e.g., unemployment and incarceration) and address barriers to compliance. Systems should avoid charging arbitrarily high interest rates on past-due support.
  • Transfer all child support collected by the state to TANF families (called a full “pass-through”). Children who receive child support have more contact with their nonresident parents. A full pass-through of child support collected by the state to the child not only increases income but also reduces disruptions to family relationships and lowers disincentives for paying support into the system.
  • Collect a wider range of demographic and outcome data and evaluate policy impacts on diverse family types. Child support systems should improve collection and analysis of demographic data (e.g., race/ethnicity, income, and barriers to payment) to address disproportionalities in child support outcomes (e.g., child support debt, enforcement actions, and legal representation) and evaluate policy impacts.
  • Provide government support to children in poverty whose parents cannot provide meaningful financial support. Children’s economic well-being is harmed when parents’ earnings decline. While systems should set or modify orders based on parents’ ability to pay, they should also ensure that children have sufficient support for their basic needs (i.e., by providing child support assurance that replaces funding the parent cannot pay).

Over half of children in the United States will live in a household without one of their biological parents before they turn 18, so child support remains an important safeguard to their well-being. Importantly, children’s well-being is closely intertwined with their access to financial resources and the quality of their family relationships. Child support systems can help all families—especially low-income families—by considering the complexity of family dynamics and taking a holistic approach to child support.


The authors thank the following groups and individuals: CGI, Inc., for funding the review of the research that this blog is based upon; Dr. Steven Golightly, a retired Los Angeles County child support director, for his policy insights for the research review; and Mindy Scott, a Child Trends senior research scholar, for her valuable feedback on this blog.


[1] For clarity, a nonresident parent lives mostly outside of the child’s household and is potentially eligible for child support services. This parent is sometimes referred to as a noncustodial parent. We refer to them as nonresident parents given the increase in shared custody of children (and shared rights to make major decisions on their behalf) among parents who do not live with them, but we recognize that “noncustodial parent” can be an appropriate term, too.

Suggested citation

Chen, Y., & Harper, K. (2023). Six strategies to design equitable child support systems. Child Trends.