Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
The Prevalence of Single-Parent Households
The significance of child support as a policy issue reflects the rapid increase in the proportion of families that are headed by single mothers. In 1991, fully 19% of white families with children and 58% of black families were maintained by mothers.1 As recently as 1970, those proportions were only 9% and 33%, respectively.
This dramatic change results from a combination of factors: rising divorce rates, the increase in births that occur out of wedlock, and declining numbers of "shotgun marriages." Since 1960, when more than 90% of all births were to married couples,2 the proportion of children born out of wedlock has grown steadily. By 1990, about 20% of white births, 40% of Hispanic births, and more than 65% of black births were to unmarried mothers. The likelihood that women will marry at the start of a pregnancy or shortly after the birth of a child has also declined substantially. One study of shotgun marriages found that, for white women, the likelihood that first births conceived out of wedlock would be quickly followed by marriage hovered between 50% and 60% through most of the 1950s and 1960s,3 but fell to 30% in 1989. A similar trend occurred among black unwed pregnant women, less than 10% of whom had a shotgun marriage in 1989.
These trends away from marriage have provoked alarm about the demise of the traditional family and concern that single parenthood might harm the well-being of children. Poverty is a key concern, since 67% of children residing with never-married mothers lived in poverty in 1989. 4 Many absent fathers pay little or no child support, leaving the mother to pay household and child-rearing expenses with whatever assistance she can secure from formal and informal sources. To address this problem, legislation has been enacted to target more aggressively the resources of the noncustodial parent, usually the father of the child.
For instance, the Family Support Act of 1988 has strong and interesting implications for the costs of absent fatherhood and their distribution between the father, the mother and child, and the rest of society. Specifically, the act mandates that each state develop a child support formula to determine the minimum amount of support that a father must pay as a function of his own income and, in some states, the income of the custodial mother. These formulas apply to the fathers of children born outside of marriage as well as to divorced fathers. The act also emphasizes the importance of establishing paternity for all children, regardless of the marital status of the parents at the time of the child's birth, and it requires extensive (and potentially expensive) enforcement machinery to ensure that the father pays child support until the child reaches age 18. Beginning in 1994, the enforcement provisions mandated wage withholding for all fathers who are under child support orders. It is still too early to tell how much effect these new policies concerning child support will have on the resources available to benefit children, or how they may change as the states assume more control over welfare policy.