The Latest from the Census Bureau on Child Support

action adult carry 1378866

June 15, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

The May, 2020 publication by the Bureau of the Census, “Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2017,” is a mass of good information.  The facts stated in the report militate strongly in favor of changes to both custody and child support laws.

First, a few basics:

About 22 million children in the U.S. lived with a custodial parent household when their other biological parent lived elsewhere.  That’s 26.5% of all children under the age of 21 in the U.S.  (Since when are 20-year-olds classified as “children?”)  Almost half (48.8%) of black kids live with a custodial parent and without the other biological parent.  About 13 million custodial parents cared for those kids. 

Unsurprisingly, custodial parents and their kids were generally far more likely to live in poverty than were children who lived with two biological parents.  Some 30.1% of children living with a custodial parent lived below the poverty line versus 11.1% of children who lived with both parents.  In case anyone wants to know what the problems are with single parenthood, that’s one major factor.  Children living in poverty overwhelmingly tend to do worse on a wide range of individual characteristics than children who don’t.  That’s in addition to the deficits associated with losing a parent to divorce, separation, etc.

Of those 13 million custodial parents, just under half (49.6%) had any kind of child support order or arrangement, whether formal or informal.  Just 43.2% of custodial parents had a court order for child support.

Not quite 70% of custodial parents with those orders actually received some child support in 2017.  30.1% of them received none.

As in the past, non-custodial fathers are more likely to pay all of the support they owe than are non-custodial mothers (46.4% and 43.1%, respectively).  They’re also more likely to pay some of what they owe than are non-custodial mothers.  That’s true despite the fact that non-custodial fathers are ordered to pay more ($5,580 per year) than are their female counterparts ($5,177).

One interesting aspect of average child support orders is that they’ve been coming steadily down over the years.  So, the average amount Dad owed Mom in 1993 was $6,078; that shot up to an astonishing $8,036 in 2001 and now stands at $5,580.  The average amount Mom owes Dad began in 1993 at $5,402, increased to $6,783 in 2013 and is now $5,177.  In both cases, the 2017 amount is the lowest amount of child support ordered since 1993.

I wonder why that is.  Could it be that judges have heard the cries of non-custodial parents, the Office of Child Support Enforcement, the National Parents Organization and simple common sense?  Did someone realize that, as the OCSE has so often said, orders are routinely set at amounts non-custodial parents can’t pay?  Did they finally realize the utter futility of overcharging, racking up arrears and interest, suspending drivers’ and other licenses and sending parents to jail?  Is the dysfunctional nature of the child support system finally sinking in on policy makers and those who periodically adjust child support guidelines?

I don’t know the answer, but, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, for several years, the economy has been in historically good shape with unemployment rates at modern-day lows.  So the decline in amounts of child support ordered isn’t a function of a bad economy and high unemployment.  If anyone can tell me why those orders are coming down, I’d be interested to know.

Meanwhile, just 51.4% of custodial mothers and 41.4% of those fathers even had a child support order.  That too raises a question: “why so few?”  Well, the Census Bureau has an answer of sorts.  It asked parents why they didn’t seek an order of support and their answers give us some idea.  The top three reasons given were “Did not feel need to make legal,” “Other parent provides what he or she can” and “Other parent could not afford to pay.”

The meanings behind those are a bit cloudy to me, but I suspect there’s something at work that the Census Bureau’s questions to parents didn’t quite tap.  My guess is that a lot of custodial parents don’t want to involve themselves with the enforcement apparatus that inevitably comes with a formal court order of child support.  They’d rather get what they can from the non-custodial parent and leave the rest to chance and his goodwill than to have him harassed and hounded by police and the DA’s office if he falls behind.  The draconian nature of the child support system isn’t exactly a well-kept secret and my belief is that many parents want no part of it. 

That theory is corroborated somewhat by the fact that the percentage of custodial parents with formal child support orders has been coming steadily down over the years.  In 1993, 57% of all custodial parents had a formal order, a figure that rose to a high of 60% in 2003 and has declined to its current rate of 49.4%.  To me, that suggests a learning curve on the part of parents and the lesson they’ve learned is that steering clear of formal orders and their enforcement mechanisms makes the most sense for all concerned.  Policy makers might want to think about that.

More on this next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *