By Phyllis P. Nance, Director, Alameda County DCSS
As 2016 comes to an end and a new administration prepares to take the leadership reigns, it is a good time to contemplate the future of the child support program. For the last eight years, child support professionals have spent a tremendous amount of effort integrating family friendly concepts, behavioral economic principles and collaborative partnerships with employment services and fatherhood groups. In California, we have been at the forefront of implementing early intervention strategies, resource centers, behavioral changes, as well as, case management strategies using stratification and predictive analytics, all in an effort to improve performance and make a positive impact for children and families. Yet, with all of our effort to engage parents and change in our service delivery model, we still struggle with lack of participation, insufficient funding, and in the world of social media, child support continues to trend negatively.
The child support program is a broad reaching program. According to the 2013 census data, more than one in every five children receives child support through the program. While most child support professionals understand that establishing and collecting child support has value to families, we have difficulty articulating a value statement that resonates with the public. One of the most important elements for any program is defining value and clarity of purpose. Clarity of purpose is different from what an organization does or the mission of the program. It is about why the program exists. It is the value proposition statement that defines importance, significance, drives funding and attention to the mission of the organization.
In 1975, the child support program was established to reduce public expenditures on welfare and to help non-AFDC families get support so they could stay off public assistance. At the time, the purpose of the program was clear. The value statement was to the tax payers ensuring that the public didn’t bear the full responsibility of supporting children just because a parent was divorced or absent from the home. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was enacted which dramatically changed the welfare system by introducing time limited assistance and a “Family First” distribution allowing families no longer receiving public assistance to have priority in the distribution of past due child support. While PRWORA didn’t substantially change the purpose of the child support program, it did shift the focus and the value statement from reimbursement of public expenditures to cost avoidance.
In 1998, the Child Support Performance and Incentive Act was implemented which introduced the five performance measures. In 2000, the Child Support Distribution Act was enacted which clarified and simplified the distribution rules to allow for all of the child support arrearage collections to be used to pay the debts owed to the family first, allowed states the option of “passing through all current support collections to custodial families receiving welfare,” and the act included funding to community-based and state programs working directly with low-income non-custodial parents. Again, while neither the 1988 nor the 2000 provisions changed the mandatory referral from the public assistance program, there was a policy shift moving away from full reimbursement of public assistance and moving toward the concept of fathers as integral to the family and child support as an important source of monthly income to all families.
Since 2000, the child support program has been challenged to define the value of the program to the public. When examining many of the social programs, there is clear emphasis on the value to taxpayers and the community. Social programs are skilled at promoting the value of a safety net for children and families, the benefits of building healthy communities, as well as, the expertise to help families become self-sufficient. By establishing value proposition statements, the social programs generate public support, have strong advocates, and in the world of social media trend more positive than negative.
There has been much discussion about branding and marketing the child support program. In order to establish a brand, we must be able to answer the following questions:
- Why is child support important?
- What is the big picture impact of the program?
- What makes the child support program unique?
- Why should the public care about child support or the child support program?
There is a definite need to clearly explain how child support improves the lives of families and is beneficial to the community and why the child support program is essential to the process. As we look toward the future we need to clearly define our value, establish a presence in the world of social media and begin positive trends like #ChildSupportIsImportant so that we can remain relevant as a program, be in a position to build partnerships within the community, and increase the impact to families.