To test the theory, the researchers analyzed how well states do at identifying their unmarried dads and getting them to pay. Eight categories of child-support laws were tracked, covering everything from paternity testing to wage withholding. The researchers also measured the amount each state spent on child-support enforcement, divided by the number of single mothers. And to gauge the effectiveness of these measures, they calculated how the amount of child support collected compared to the amount that was owed.
The state-by-state measures of enforcement then got matched to national data on families from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics during 1980-93, the most recent period available.
The correlation between strictness of enforcement and rate of unmarried births was significant. Indeed, the results suggest that if every state had on its books at least six (out of a possible eight) child-support laws during the period, this would have cut the national rate of nonmarital childbearing by 17 percent.
Moreover, according to the results, if all 50 states had done at least as well in their enforcement efforts as the state ranked fifth from the top, that would have led to a 20 percent reduction in out-of-wedlock births.
"Any program that reduced out-of-wedlock childbearing by 17 to 20 percent," said Plotnick, "would be viewed as a major success."
While many states have continued to tighten up child support policies since the study's data were collected, even as recently as 2002 only one state (New Jersey) collected on at least 80 percent of its child support orders, according to Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty. Five states collected on fewer than four out of 10 such orders.
The main purposes of child support enforcement, of course, are to improve children's wellbeing and cut public welfare costs, but the researchers concl
Contact: Steven Goldsmith
University of Washington