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In the study, researchers compared the effects of parental debt on the socio-emotional well-being of children who do not live with their biological father, a living arrangement experienced by more than half of children in the United States at some point in their childhood.

"Child support debt is very common," said lead author Lenna Nepomnyaschy, an associate professor at Rutgers' School of Social Work and a core faculty member at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research.

"Across the US, 77 per cent of cases in the child support enforcement system have debt, totalling USD 117 billion. Most of this debt is held by very low-income fathers. Seventy per cent of these fathers have less than USD 10,000 in income and 60 per cent have no income. These debts are a product of punitive child support enforcement policies which target the lowest income men, and unsurprisingly, are considered uncollectible," said Nepomnyaschy.

Child support debt reduces fathers' ability to invest in their children, increases parental conflict and reduces fathers' physical and mental health. According to the study, this type of debt then negatively impacts children's behavioural and emotional problems such as crying, worrying, fighting, bullying and skipping school and these effects appear to strengthen as children age.

The researchers analysed a national dataset of 5,000 children born in urban areas in the late 1990s that followed children and their families for 15 years. They focused on children whose biological fathers did not live with them at ages 9 and 15. They compared the effects on a child's well-being of a mother's household debt (credit card and loans), non-resident father's household debt and their child support debt.

Among all non-resident fathers in the sample, 23 per cent have very high child support debt (calculated as more than 25 per cent of their income). However, among the one-third of fathers with the lowest incomes, 41 per cent report this high level of debt burden, while only 8 per cent of fathers with higher incomes are in this situation.

Nepomnyaschy said child support debt is a type of retrospective debt obligation that carries economic, social, and legal sanctions that may be more harmful to children than other types of parental debt.

"Child support debt can lead to license suspension and incarceration, which undermine fathers' ability to work, pay off debts and spend time with children; can lead to more conflict in the co-parenting relationship, less reliable cash support and less involvement with children; cannot be discharged by filing for bankruptcy; and can be extremely difficult for the lowest-income parents to ever repay, thus persisting and accumulating throughout childhood," she said.

The authors suggest several innovative policy reforms to reduce the accrual of debt, which will benefit children's well-being. These include setting more realistic child support obligations based on what fathers can pay, modifying these obligations during unemployment or incarceration, not charging interest when fathers fall behind, decoupling mothers' applications for public assistance from child support enforcement, ending the suspending of drivers' licenses and using incarceration as punishment for falling behind on payments, among others.

Most importantly, Nepomnyaschy says, policies should forgive accrued child support debt if a father is employed or in job training, is paying anything toward child support, and is involved with his children.

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