A white hand dials a number on an office phone, the receiver for the phone held in the other hand. Image via pixabay, Pixabay License.

In the United States there are 14 million formal child support cases, meaning that one in five children are dependent on child support payments. To ensure that these children receive financial support from noncustodial parents (that is, parents who are not the primary caretaker), child support agencies employ punitive strategies such as garnishing wages, suspending public assistance, suspending driver’s licenses, and even jail time.  

Unsurprisingly, previous research has found that noncustodial parents were dissatisfied and frustrated with child support agencies and their harsh sanctions. However, when Daniel Meyer and Yoona Kim used a larger, nationwide sample to test whether noncustodial parents actually disliked the child support system, their analysis told a different story.  

Unlike previous studies, which have generally used small interview-based methods, the researchers used surveys to assess satisfaction of 1,800 noncustodial parents in seven states who were behind on payments and had difficulty holding a job. They found that the majority of noncustodial parents were actually satisfied or indifferent about the child support agencies – the opposite finding of previous qualitative studies.  

They also discovered that one of the largest predictors of satisfaction was personalized service.  More specifically, when noncustodial parents knew the name of a child support worker that they could call for questions, they were 56% more likely to be satisfied with the child support system.

Statistics can tell us a story that sometimes counters our assumptions and previous understandings – and multiple methods are likely needed to address a complex question like satisfaction with the child support system.  Understanding such questions is likely essential to encouraging timely and complete payments which support children. With millions of children depending on child support to stay housed, clothed, and fed, this research shows how “putting names to systems” can help humanize government services and institutions.