Do Carrots Work Better than Sticks? Results from the National Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration
Most children in the United States will spend at least part of their childhood living apart from one of their parents; the child support system is designed to ensure that they nonetheless receive financial support. While the system is largely effective when noncustodial parents have substantial regular earnings, many noncustodial parents, including a disproportionate share of those whose children live in poverty, have limited earnings and ability to pay child support. The system's response to nonpayment is primarily “sticks,” that is, threats and punishments. Nonexperimental evaluations of alternative approaches have shown promise. The National Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED), a large-scale random-assignment evaluation enrolling more than 10,000 noncustodial parents across 18 locations in eight states, was designed to test the effectiveness of an alternative approach—adjusting child support orders, reducing punitive enforcement, and offering employment and parenting services. We find that CSPED, using carrots in place of sticks, substantially increased the satisfaction of noncustodial parents with child support services, lowered the amount of support owed, and increased noncustodial parents’ sense of responsibility for their children. However, CSPED had limited to no effects on child support compliance, child support payments, or employment outcomes.