Editor’s note: This story is part four in a series examining Mississippi’s child support enforcement program. Read the other stories here.

The welfare agency in Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation, manages a particularly high number of child support cases each year.

The state’s child support enforcement program oversees 267,000 cases in a state with a population of nearly 3 million, a case rate that is the highest of any state and double the national average. Arkansas, a state with a similar population to Mississippi, for example, has just over 100,000 cases.

The child support enforcement program helps mostly single moms secure support orders — the court document that spells out how much a noncustodial parent must pay to support their child each month — and collect the funds.

Compared to other states, Mississippi pushes more of its people into the program because it requires single moms to cooperate with child support enforcement to remain eligible for food benefits — a requirement that only seven states impose — or before applying for the child care voucher. And the state has a larger Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program population due to its high poverty rate.

Advocates for working women argue that Mississippi should stop requiring separated moms to legally pursue their child’s father for support in order to qualify for public assistance because the policy punishes families who may have their own agreed upon arrangements and ultimately hurts children. 

The policy also just adds complexity to the government programs, as the state is constantly identifying parents who are out of compliance with child support enforcement and kicking them off the rolls — only for them to reapply.

Within advocacy surrounding the child support program in Mississippi, challenging this policy has been the primary priority. Attempts to eliminate the requirement, including during the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, have failed to gain traction, dying in committee before most lawmakers had a chance to consider them. 

But there are several other things agency officials or lawmakers could do to improve the fraught program, according to eight safety net policy or administration experts Mississippi Today interviewed, to benefit both participating families and the state’s overall wellbeing.

Don’t punish the poor for being poor.

Since government contractor YoungWilliams began operating the child support enforcement program statewide in 2016, it has implemented a more stringent process for bringing contempt of court complaints against noncustodial parents who are behind on child support. The process requires there be some evidence that the parent possesses the funds and is willfully refusing to pay, so that the state is not potentially jailing people for living in poverty, turning the program into a debtor’s prison.

The agency and contractor worked together to make this happen, but the state is technically required to enact its own similar safeguards in its official child support guidelines under the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement’s 2016 rule change. It has until 2022 to comply, state officials said. Doing so would help ensure that the state is following a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Turner v. Rogers, which said states must determine whether a parent is able to pay the ordered child support before incarcerating them for nonpayment.

The state could consider using the same standard before it moves to suspend a parent’s driver’s license. License suspensions may counterintuitively harm a father’s ability to get to work, and therefore his ability to pay his child support.

The state is supposed to define “ability to pay,” for purposes of deciding whether to pursue civil contempt penalties, by looking at whether the parent can presently afford to pay the entirety of what the judge ordered, not just a portion. In other words, if the state is going to jail a father for back due child support, justices in the Turner case said, he “must hold the key to the jailhouse door.”

Don’t let debts accrue behind bars.

When a person with a child support order is incarcerated, they may request a modification to their order so debts don’t pile up while they sit behind bars. But in Mississippi, a judge may decide that the parent’s imprisonment constitutes “voluntary unemployment,” thereby denying the change.

The 2016 federal rule change prohibits this practice, but the state hasn’t yet changed its own guidelines, so it continues to occur today.

The state could also implement an administrative appeals process to suspend child support orders during incarceration outside of the court system.

Help modify unmanageable support orders.

Noncustodial parents in Mississippi’s child support enforcement program could, in the worst scenarios, be paying up to 65% of their counted income to child support, former agency officials told Mississippi Today. Especially after employment or wage loss, these parents must be able to request a modification to their order so they can make do financially. Those are all handled through the often sluggish courts.

Mississippi could create an alternative administrative system that would allow the program to handle the modification internally with an option to appeal to a judge.

Create a portal.

Human Services officials have talked about creating a portal where custodial parents can track exactly how much the noncustodial parent is paying on their case and how much they owe, as is available in other states. This could provide some comfort to moms who have complained of confusion and delays in receiving their funds.

Pay families first, not state coffers.

Currently, Mississippi holds back child support dollars intended for families receiving welfare, first paying itself back for the cash assistance it provided, meaning some families never see a cent of child support paid into the system. 

To help struggling families, the Legislature could pass a law to allow a portion of the monthly child support collected $50, $100 or $200 to first pass through to the family before the state begins recouping the funds for itself. Twenty seven states already do some version of this, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including two, Colorado and Minnesota, that pass all child support to the parent.

Mississippi also currently counts any child support the family does receive as income for the purposes of awarding welfare or food benefits, meaning it could lower the amount of assistance low-income families receive or kick them out of eligibility.

Mississippi could move to disregard child support as income, as 28 states already do.

Child support recoupment in Mississippi doesn’t apply to an incredibly large population because of how few families receive welfare in the first place. However, if the new Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson is successful in expanding eligibility for welfare, these could become even more crucial policies.

Be realistic about earnings.

If a noncustodial parent is unemployed or lacking wage information, the state currently uses the minimum wage $7.25 an hour at 40 hours a week to determine how much child support to order. They do this regardless of the parent’s realistic employability, earning history or the job prospects in their area.

The state could alter its formula to take these economic circumstances into account, so separated fathers are not saddled with monthly payments they will not be able to pay.

Make processing applications easier.

The state could modernize the child support system by allowing participants to use electronic images of birth certificates and electronic signatures, improving remote access to the program.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.