Spotlight: An Interview with Robert Plotnick on his Work, "The Impact of Child Support Enforcement on Nonmarital Childbearing"

Robert Plotnick is Professor of Public Affairs, Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, and a WCPC Senior Faculty Affiliate. Professor Plotnick studies poverty, welfare, family formation and, the determinants and consequences of teen and nonmarital fertility. He is also analyzing the benefits and costs of three interventions intended to improve the health and well-being of children and parents - enhanced foster care services, special services for children whose parents are in methadone treatment, and a program to improve new married parents’ caregiving skills and increase their marital stability.


The WCPC had the opportunity to interview Professor Plotnick on his work, " The Impact of Child Support Enforcement on Nonmarital Childbearing", published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2006). Watch the video interview, or read the transcript below.


WCPC: How did you become interested in the role that child support enforcement plays in individuals decisions to have children outside of marriage? 

Plotnick: Well, I’ve always been interested in poverty issues and the role of public policy in reducing poverty. Some years ago in the early eighties I started working on nonmarital childbearing issues, but not necessarily child support. Child support is an issue that keeps coming up in anti-poverty policy; there have been increasing discussions about the various ways it affects behavior. One of the ways that was proposed was nonmarital childbearing, so it was a nice intersection between my work on nonmarital childbearing and welfare and moving it over – I also ask about the effect on child support policy, a policy that has become much more important in the past fifteen-twenty years.

WCPC: What was the most significant finding to you?

Plotnick: So the big finding, if you will the big bottom line, is that there is an association between how stringently child support is enforced and how likely it is that a woman living in a state will have a nonmarital birth. So states that do a very good job of collecting, that have stiffer laws on the books, tend to have fewer nonmarital births, that is a fewer percentage of women having nonmarital births, that’s the key finding. It echoes some findings from other work, confirms them with a different data set, a different time period. I think it’s a very interesting message for policy. 

WCPC: What questions does this research raise for future inquiry?

Plotnick: It could go in a number of ways. One question is "Well child support has changed a lot in the last ten or so years, welfare reform began in ‘96, most of our evidence is before 1996. So the first step would be to update the evidence and see if those relationships still hold in a very new social policy environment." That said I think that it would be interesting to unpack why we’re finding this relationship. To what extent is it affecting abortion choices? Is it affecting marriage choices? How is it affecting men’s and women’s thinking on this issue? So it’s kind of to get beyond the statistical correlation and get into more of the black box of the actual decisions that go into having a child out of wedlock. You have to become pregnant, you have to carry it to term you have to not marry before the birth. 

WCPC: What implications does this study have for policy makers?

Plotnick: Well I think there are two clear ones, and they kind of work together, because public policy is committed to improving child support collections for single parents where the absent parent is gone. Typically the mother is trying to raise the child, and when the family may have a very low income, child support can provide a very important supplement to whatever she can make in the labor market or from public transfer policy. On the other hand, everyone is really opposed to nonmarital childbearing. I don’t think that anyone in favor of it. People may disagree about, for example, the role of abortion in making those decisions, but here is a policy that does both things positively. If our findings are correct, it reduces nonmarital childbearing, and more stringent enforcement is delivering the money where you want it to go – to the families with absent parents. And so it’s nice where you get a policy that instead of getting an unintended side effect that we don’t like, which is so common in public policy, you might say that this is an unintended side effect – no one really thought about child support policy, or very few thought that child support policy was motivated or would have any effect on nonmarital childbearing. So we’re finding this unintended unexpected effect, and it’s a good one rather than a bad one. And it’s rare and kind of nice to see.

If you are unable to access the Journal article and would like a copy of the complete text, please email professor Plotnick at