EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this article went to press, more than 22 million American workers--about 13 percent of the US workforce--have filed for unemployment benefits as a result of a month of COVID-19-related shutdowns, suggesting that the April unemployment rate could rise to an estimated 18 percent. (1)
If you look at the macroeconomic data, the U.S. economy seems to be in great shape. Unemployment stands at a 50-year low, with more Americans employed than ever before. (2)
But ask job seekers about the economy, and many will paint a different picture: Prolonged job searches. Low pay. Juggling multiple jobs to pay the bills. Unpredictable hours that make it hard to arrange for child care.
In short, the economic data tell one story, while the lived experiences of many Americans tell another.
What explains this discrepancy?
"The problem is that the quality of the stock of jobs on offer has been deteriorating for the last 30 years," explains Dan Alpert, a Cornell Law School professor who helped create the U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index (JQI), a monthly indicator that measures the quality of the job offers by calculating the ratio of higher-wage/higher-hour jobs to lower-wage/ lower-hour jobs. (3)
As of January 2020, the JQI was 82.68, which means there are roughly 82 "high-quality" jobs for every 100 "low-quality" ones. That's a marked decline from the pre-recession ratio of 90. (4)
If you examine the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, you'll see a similar split between the data and actual experience. TANF has fewer caseloads today than in any year since the program was created. Between 2006 and 2017, most states saw their TANF caseloads decline by more than 20 percent. (5)
"Across the country, we've seen TANF caseloads drop to their lowest levels ever," observes David Stillman, Assistant Secretary of the Economic Services Administration (ESA) in Washington State's Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and former Division of Child Support Director for the state. "Some of that, of course, has to do with a good economy." (6)
But that isn't the whole story.
Many individuals who no longer qualify for TANF still cannot afford basic necessities. According to Stillman, "People have to be truly impoverished to be eligible for TANF, but that doesn't mean that someone who's receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits isn't struggling." (7)
As TANF caseloads have declined, so too have child support caseloads. That's because the child support program has traditionally received most of its referrals from TANF and Medicaid. Since participation in the child support program is higher among low-income families, the decline in numbers of automatic referrals from the TANF caseload has an acute impact on families struggling to make ends meet. (8)
The assumption that all noncustodial parents will find jobs that pay well enough to support both themselves and their children makes far less sense today than when the child support program was created in 1975, particularly in light of the long-term decline in the quality of jobs being created. (9) When parents have insufficient income, no number of reminders or threats of legal action, including jail, can make them come up with regular payments or dig their way out of arrears.
All of these factors have led an increasing number of child support programs to reevaluate how they deliver services, and what services to deliver, with a focus on:
* Elevating the human experience
* Experimenting with more holistic approaches
* Using "big hairy audacious goals" to help bring stakeholders to the table (10)
Here we examine a number of promising approaches states are pursuing.
Elevating the Human Experience
What is it like to interact with multiple...