Parents' Fair Share


Policy debates about child poverty and welfare reform, which once focused almost exclusively on single mothers and their children, have in recent years begun to train the spotlight on fathers. Fathers are important sources of financial and emotional support for their children, but noncustodial fathers with low incomes and poor job prospects often do not fulfill their parenting roles, instead accumulating child support debts that lead them to evade the child support system and to see less of their children.

An early and particularly ambitious attempt to help such men become better fathers was Parents’ Fair Share (PFS), a national demonstration project authorized by the Family Support Act of 1988. A key goal of that law was to enforce more vigorously the child support obligations of noncustodial parents, most of them fathers. Recognizing that tougher enforcement would not work for fathers who could not pay, the law allowed some states to assign such men to programs designed to help them find jobs and play a more active role in their children’s lives. The PFS demonstration tested the effectiveness of this pathbreaking approach.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Targeted at underemployed or unemployed noncustodial fathers who owed child support and had children receiving welfare, PFS aimed to increase child support payments, employment and earnings, and parental involvement.

The program depended on local partnerships among child support agencies, employment and training providers, and community-based service organizations to implement its diverse set of services and features, which included:

  • Peer support groups
  • Employment and training services
  • Mediation to improve relations with custodial parents
  • Enhanced child support enforcement
  • Reduced child support obligations during the period of program participation

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The evaluation of PFS included more than 5,000 fathers in the program’s target population. Starting in 1994, each one was randomly assigned to the PFS group, which was required to participate in the program, or to a control group. Because fathers were assigned to one or the other group at random, the two groups did not differ at the outset of the study. Therefore, any differences between them that emerged during the study’s two-year follow-up period are attributable to PFS.

PFS operated in seven sites:

  • Dayton, Ohio
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Jacksonville, Florida
  • Los Angeles, California
  • Memphis, Tennessee
  • Springfield, Massachusetts
  • Trenton, New Jersey

The program’s effects were assessed using unemployment insurance records, child support agency records, and surveys of a subset of fathers in the study and the custodial mothers of their children.