Vol. 3, No. 10 (October, 1993) pp. 109-110

SMALL CHANGE: THE ECONOMICS OF CHILD SUPPORT by Andrea H. Beller and John W. Graham, Yale University Press, 1993

Reviewed by: Jessica Pearson , Center for Policy Research, Denver, Colorado

In their book, SMALL CHANGE: THE ECONOMICS OF CHILD SUPPORT, Andrea Beller and John Graham examine aggregate trends in child support over the period 1978-1986. Their analyses rely on data gleaned in the child support supplement to the Current Population Survey, first administered in 1979 and conducted biennially thereafter. The combined data set they manipulate contains information about 16,000 mothers eligible for child support including 4,000 black and 3,000 never married mothers. This allows the authors to compare child support experience for blacks and non-blacks, married and never-married parents. Their analyses occur within a framework of economic modelling that emphasizes the benefits and costs of child support for mothers and the fathers' ability and willingness to pay in explaining child support outcomes.

Beller and Graham reach a number of conclusions about the child support system and how it has evolved during a time period of increasing federal involvement. Their findings underscore the inadequacy of the system for black and never married women, sub- groups that have grown disproportionately in the last few decades. On virtually every indicator of child support outcome, these women fare dramatically worse than their non-black and ever-married counterparts. Granted, AFDC recipients, many of whom are black and/or never married, have received disproportionate enforcement attention by child support agencies and these populations have consequently experienced certain increases in award and collection rates. Nevertheless, their overall standing with respect to awards, order levels and receipts lag far behind. Although the authors do not focus on the policy implications of this finding, it does raise serious questions about the whole premise of private transfer as a remedy for those with out-of-wedlock births and minority poverty.

Among non-black and ever-married women, the authors find evidence of only small increases in award and receipt rates, suggesting that efforts to strengthen child support enforcement may have been partially successful. Although they find no evidence that government spending for child support has increased child support receipts, they find some evidence that certain enforcement techniques have been helpful including criminal penalties and wage withholding. Administrative procedures, on the other hand, appear to be associated with lower receipt rates. It should be noted that these data were collected prior to the implementation of many new aggressive enforcement remedies.

In any event, evidence of modest increases in award and receipt rates were more than offset by a 25 percent decline in the real dollar amount of child support payments made during 1978-1986. The authors attribute this to the failure of child support order levels to keep up with inflation and changes in the real incomes of fathers, although they note that real incomes of fathers stagnated after 1973. The obvious remedy to this problem is the utilization of child support guidelines to establish order levels that reflect parental income. This too became mandatory in 1988 pursuant to the enactment of the Family Support Act, along with requirements for periodic review and updating of old awards at the request of either party. Again, given the time frame of their study, Beller and Graham offer no reading on the impact of these and other provisions of the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984 and the 1988 Family Support Act.

My biggest frustration with this book is that it feels out of date. The last year for which data was utilized in this study was 1986. Since then, legislation has been enacted requiring states to improve paternity establishment or face financial penalties, utilize presumptive child support guidelines, institute periodic updating of child support awards and routinely use income

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withholding and other enforcement remedies. The architects of child support guidelines and other remedies embodied in recent legislation have predicted dramatic impacts on child support award and payment patterns. The research that my colleagues and I have conducted comparing awards promulgated prior to and following the adoption of presumptive guidelines in specific jurisdictions suggests that these impacts have been extremely modest. Has the new legislation translated into substantial gains? Which sub-groups, if any, have benefitted? Why and why not? To my mind, these are the vital questions that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, this book does not do the job.

Another frustration I have with this book is the nature of the CPS data they utilized to operationalize the variables in their model. Father's ability to pay was measured by the socioeconomic characteristics of mothers and was supplemented by mean income data of year-round, full-time male workers by race. In a similar vein, information about the mother was used to represent father's desire to pay child support. Even mother's expected benefits and costs were indirectly measured through the limited available data on her marital status, education level and numbers and ages of her children. There were absolutely no direct measures of many of the determinants of child support outcomes including father's income, father's employment status and stability, father's remarriage, current living arrangements for mothers and fathers, custody and visitation arrangements and the relationship between the parents.

The authors concede these limitations but indicate that they aren't so critical given their interest in revealing racial and marital status differentials and trends over time. Critical or not, the result is a limited book that documents what is obvious to anyone who has worked with the child support system: that it is bad for everyone but worse for blacks and never-marrieds.

Copyright 1993