What We Learned About Programs Serving Disadvantaged Noncustodial Parents

Publication Date: January 26, 2021
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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

Research Questions

  1. How does offering employment and other supportive services to disadvantaged noncustodial parents affect their employment and earnings, parenting, and child support payments?

In 2018, 27 percent of all children under 21 years old in the United States lived apart from a parent, often a father and referred to as a noncustodial parent by the child support program. Research consistently shows that these parents are a heterogeneous group, some of whom do not provide financial support to their children because they lack steady employment. But, relatively little research has examined whether programs that offer employment services and other supportive services to disadvantaged noncustodial parents can increase their earnings, parental engagement, and child support payments. This brief summarizes three recently completed federal evaluations that address this question, all of which used a random assignment evaluation design.

The three recently completed federal demonstrations summarized in this brief are:

All three demonstrations were designed to increase the earnings of disadvantaged noncustodial parents and improve the well-being of their children.  As such, all three demonstrations provided employment services. One provided participants with up to 4 months of subsidized employment (ETJD); the other two provided less intensive employment services, which included job search, job readiness, and job development. All three demonstrations provided enhanced child support services, which included order modification if needed. Two demonstrations included parenting workshops in all sites; the third demonstration included parenting workshops in two of its four sites (ETJD).

The typical participant in these demonstrations was a man of color in his thirties who faced significant employment barriers. Roughly 70% of participants had a criminal record; over half had experienced some form of homelessness in the past year; and about 30% had not completed high school. Nearly all of them had children who did not live with them

Key Findings and Highlights

Key impact findings from these three demonstrations include the following:

  1. All three demonstrations saw an increase in earnings as measured by quarterly earnings records during the final 12-month follow-up period, two of which were statistically significant.
    • ETJD increased earnings by 13%;
    • PACT increased earnings by 6%; and
    • CSPED increased earnings by 4%.
  2. All three demonstrations saw an increase in the likelihood of working as measured by quarterly earnings records, two of which were statistically significant. ETJD and PACT examined the likelihood of working in the final 12-month follow-up period; CSPED examined the likelihood of working in the final 24-month follow-up period.
    • ETJD increased the likelihood of working by 7%;
    • PACT increased the likelihood of working by 3%; and
    • CSPED increased the likelihood of working by 3%.
  3. Two of the demonstrations examined child support payments (ETJD and CSPED). Neither study found a statistically significant impact of the program on the amount of child support paid.
    • One explanation for why these programs did not increase the amount of child support paid is because both programs provided order modification services to members of the treatment group, which reduced child support orders for many treatment group members. This, in turn, reduced the amount of child support withheld to pay child support obligations. While control group members could also have their orders reduced, they had to request an order modification themselves. Because ETJD and CSPED offered order modification services that could reduce the amount of child support paid as well as employment services that could increase the amount of child support paid, these services appeared to work at cross-purposes and could have been the reason why these programs did not have an impact on the amount of child support paid.
  4. All three demonstrations examined the percent of parents who had any contact with their children during the final 12-month follow-up period. The two demonstrations that included parenting services in all sites saw a significant increase in the percent of parents who had any contact with their children (PACT and CSPED). ETJD, which did not include parenting services in all sites, saw a significant decrease in the percent of parents who had any contact with their children.
    • ETJD decreased parent-child contact by 5%;
    • PACT increased parent-child contact by 3%; and
    • CSPED increased parent-child contact by 3%.

Recommendations

The success of these demonstrations in improving noncustodial parents’ employment and earnings is noteworthy because prior random assignment evaluations of similar programs had not found significant impacts.  The demonstration with the largest impact on employment and earnings offered up to four months of subsidized employment, suggesting that the intensity of employment services matters.  

The two demonstrations that examined child support payments did not find an impact on the amount of child support paid.  As noted above under key findings, this may be because the employment services and enhanced child support services worked at cross-purposes.  While the employment services may have increased earnings and thus could have increased the amount of child support paid, because many participants’ child support orders were modified downward as part of enhanced child support services, the average participant was required to pay less child support. Given that the average order declined, it is not surprising that the amount of child support paid did not increase.  This suggests that future demonstrations may want to tease out the effects of order modification and employment services on child support payments.

It is also noteworthy that the two demonstrations that included parenting workshops as a core service had a positive impact on father-child contact.  Prior random assignment evaluations of similar programs had not found significant impacts on father-child contact.  It is also worth noting that the demonstration that did not include parenting workshops as a core service had a negative impact on father-child contact. Future demonstrations may want to disentangle the impact of parenting and employment services on parenting outcomes.

Citation

Sorensen, Elaine (2020). What We Learned from Recent Federal Evaluations of Programs Serving Disadvantaged Noncustodial Parents, OPRE Report #2020-120, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.