Using Behavioral Strategies to Increase Initial Child Support Payments in Texas
State child support programs secure financial support for children whose parents live apart. Establishing paternity, establishing and enforcing child support orders, and collecting and distributing payments are core child support program functions. Most child support payments come from income withholding paid through employers, a process that can take a few months to begin after a new order is established. Noncustodial parents are legally responsible for making payments once orders are established, and those payments must be made by parents during the months before income withholding starts.
If a parent fails to make payments before income withholding starts, the family will go without support during that time and the parent can accumulate several months of child support debt. In states that apply interest charges to child support debt, this initial debt can grow exponentially. On an individual basis, mistakenly assuming that child support is coming out of their paychecks immediately can lead parents to miss making these first few payments, resulting in thousands of dollars in debt accruing. In Texas, the first few months of missed payments across thousands of families can add up to millions of dollars in child support lost each year.
The Texas Office of the Attorney General and the Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) team developed an intervention designed to increase the percentage of employed parents who made payments during the first months after an order was established. The intervention, called Start Smart, was designed to inform parents about the likely delay in income withholding and to help them plan to make payments during that time. Start Smart used strategies from behavioral science to clarify the process and encourage parents to make required payments. Start Smart was implemented in four regions of Texas: Amarillo, Dallas, El Paso, and Paris/Tyler.
In each of the four locations, Start Smart payment specialists randomly assigned eligible parents into one of two groups, the intervention group or the control group, immediately after their orders were established. Members of the intervention group stayed for a short one-on-one meeting with a payment specialist, who provided parents with specially designed informational materials about child support payments. One week after the meeting, the payment specialist made a follow-up call to each intervention group member to remind him or her to make payments. Parents in the control group received business-as-usual procedures, which did not include meeting with the payment specialist or receiving a follow-up call.
To determine whether there was any impact from Start Smart, the BICS team analyzed data on payments during the first three months after order establishment. By the fourth month, the expectation was that income withholding would be in place.
Start Smart increased the percentage of parents who made payments in the first month after an order was established by 4.9 percentage points, from 56.5 percent to 61.4 percent. This difference is statistically significant at the 10 percent level (which suggests that it is due to the Start Smart intervention rather than random chance), and represents a 9 percent increase in payments made during the first month. Start Smart did not produce statistically significant differences in payments made in the second or third month.