In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which made radical changes to the way the nation provides income support to low-income families. In addition to these changes in welfare policy, a substantial number of changes were made to child support policy. A major complaint about the child support system was its failure to establish paternity for children born to unmarried parents. It is necessary to establish paternity so that the child has legal access to a father for emotional, physical, and financial support. However, for children on welfare, child support may have very little impact on economic resources, depending on the state in which the child resides. Most states retain child support payments to offset the state’s financial outlay on cash welfare. In 1997 Wisconsin received a waiver from the federal distribution rules allowing it to pass through the entire amount of the child support collected to the custodial parent, and to disregard all child support in calculating TANF cash payments.
In 1999 and 2001, I conducted ethnographic research, consisting of extensive face-to-face interviews with 36 randomly selected African American noncustodial fathers of children who received public assistance in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The purpose of the research was to ascertain the level of knowledge on the part of noncustodial fathers concerning the child support system, in particular the passthrough policy; to understand fathers’ involvement with their children; and to explore fathers’ perspective on child support. The results from that research were that many of the fathers were ill-informed on basic child support system operations, nor had they heard about the pass-through waiver or its benefits to those paying child support for their children on welfare in Wisconsin.
Five years later, this new research explores the knowledge level among noncustodial and custodial parents, by race, gender, and geographic location, concerning child support policy. With the passing of time and the continuing practice of passing through child support payments with a full disregard, the knowledge of this policy may have affected the child support paying practice of noncustodial parents.
To gather this information, I conducted sixteen focus groups in seven counties, four of them urban—Milwaukee, Dane, Racine, and Waukesha—and three rural, Manitowoc, Sauk, and Sawyer. The recruitment resulted in 157 focus group participants (87 custodial parents and 70 noncustodial parents). The participants were consumers of state and federal services available in the state of Wisconsin. (author abstract)