The need for child support is as old as history. Families have always been complicated and diverse. But the way we obtain support for children has to change with every generation, as each faces different challenges, has different values, and has different families. What changes does the rising generation of parents in our caseload face?
- Economic opportunity: We see a widening social divide in economic opportunity: the wage gap is growing. And a widening social divide in family stability: disparities in children’s life chances are growing.
- Labor market: There are fewer stable jobs for low-skilled workers. Available jobs for low-skilled workers are lower-paying, with few career advancement opportunities and no benefits.
- Education and job path for men and women: 20 percent of men in their prime working years are not working. (When I was growing up in the 1950s, 5 percent of men were not working.) Over the past 25 years, we’ve seen a steep increase in women’s employment, but men’s employment fell. Although a gender wage gap remains, women’s wages have risen and men’s have fallen. Men, particularly men of color, are much more likely to have been incarcerated, further reducing their job and family opportunities.
- Family structures: Complex families involve multiple partners, multiple parents, and more grandparents and relatives raising children. More children are born outside of marriage. In fact, the majority of all children born to mothers under 30 in this country are born outside of marriage. Same-sex marriage, assisted reproduction, and open adoption are additional facets of modern family life.
- Two words, smart phones: The rising generation uses technology to obtain information and connect to others. Among low-income young people, smart phones are the connection to the outside world. This generational shift profoundly impacts how the child support program can successfully interact with young parents.
The new generation
We are entering the third generation of our program. Our basic program infrastructure built in 1975 addressed an earlier generation of parents, the divorce generation. We need to rethink our business model and adapt our program to the realities of this generation. Our main challenge is to collect the money and encourage employment and reinforce positive family relationships. Fewer resources are the new normal, so we need pragmatic, cost-effective, results-oriented approaches.
All over the country, I see child support agencies step up to the plate to meet the needs of this generation. The basic building blocks for meeting the challenges of today are:
- Focus on the fundamentals (systems, employers, customer service)
- Get the order right (based on real income, not imputed)
- Link to services (including jobs, parenting time, and health care)
I see child support agencies implementing technology innovations, for example:
- Interactive websites and apps
- Streamlined automated workflow
- Data analytics (caseworker-level data, predictive scoring, caseload stratification)
- Continuous review and adjustment
- Document management (document imaging, e-filing)
- OCSE’s portal technology, including e-IWO
And I see child support agencies implementing people innovations, for example:
- Building human relationships, including complex case management
- Debt reduction
- Emphasis on parenting
- Employment and wrap-around services
- Judicial problem-solving courts
- Reduced use of expensive contempt hearings
- More focus on encouraging behavioral changes—what the researchers call “behavioral economics”—the ability and willingness to pay, work, and parent.
As we wrap up 2013, I congratulate our state and tribal child support professionals on these accomplishments.
Stay tuned to my next Commissioner’s Voice in January 2014, when I’ll offer you 10 challenges as we face the third generation of our program!