Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994
Divorce and Child Support
Historically, child support, in the form of a cash transfer from fathers to mothers, has evolved as the primary mechanism whereby nonresident fathers are legally required to support their children.30 Unfortunately, child support awards are generally small, and often payments arrive irregularly if at all.31 However, because single mothers have relatively low-incomes, the receipt of child support payments can make a difference in their economic well-being. Data from the 1989 CPS indicate that child support payments comprised about 17% of the total income of divorced mothers who received support in 1989. For women below the poverty level, payments made up a much larger proportion, 38% of their total income.32
Table 7 shows the percent of ever-married mothers who were awarded and received child support in 1989. Slightly less than three-fourths of divorced mothers had ever been awarded child support. Of these mothers, 62% were due payments. Three-fourths of women due support actually received payments, or less than half of all divorced mothers. The mean amount of child support received among divorced mothers in 1989 was $3,138 per year, and the average number of children per family was a bit over 1.5 children.32
The data in Table 7 are striking because they indicate that a large proportion of divorced mothers do not have a child support award. Many of the mothers who do have an award do not receive payment, and if a payment is received, the amount is low. The average annual amount paid in child support is much less than the cost of raising a child.33
Because the average annual amount paid in child support is so low, some researchers have sought to determine how much child support absent fathers can afford to pay. Most estimates of this nature assume that all or almost all divorced mothers will receive an award, most or almost all absent fathers will pay child support, and the amount paid will follow some set of guidelines. The guidelines most commonly used are those in place in Colorado, Delaware, or Wisconsin.34 Virtually all estimates of the amount of child support that could be collected are substantially greater than the current amount being collected. For example, by estimating the incomes of noncustodial fathers and then matching these incomes to a simulation of normative standards for how much these parents should contribute, Garfinkel and Oellerich estimated that absent fathers (both divorced and never married) can afford to pay between three and four times the amount of child support that they are currently paying (or about two and one-half to three times more than they are currently obligated to pay).35 In other words, annual collections of child support would increase from about $6.8 billion nationally to somewhere between $23.8 billion and $30.1 billion annually.
It is interesting to note, though, that increased collection of child support will not necessarily lead to substantial decrements in the proportion of divorced mothers with incomes below the poverty line36 because an increase in collection will not be distributed equally among divorced mothers. Women who are economically better-off are more likely to receive a greater proportion of the increased child support because they were married to men with greater economic resources.
Although increased child support collections may not enable a substantial number of mothers to leave welfare, there is some evidence that child support may help prevent those who exit AFDC from reentry.37 Because divorced mothers who are below the poverty line were married to the least economically secure men, the modest amount of additional child support due these women is not large relative to AFDC payments received. There is also some evidence indicating that full collection of child support under the Wisconsin system would increase the risk of poverty for the new families of absent fathers. The risk of experiencing poverty in new families could be substantially due to the often low earning power of absent fathers. That is, child support payments under the Wisconsin guidelines are sufficiently high that, if these payments were subtracted from the incomes of absent fathers who have remarried, it would place their new families below the poverty line. This point indicates the nature of the tradeoffs that often must be considered and made when implementing policy.38
This is not to say, however, that additional income would not be beneficial to mothers and children. It is true that the more substantial amount of child support accruing to women above the poverty line would materially increase the well-being of their children. It may also be true that increased child support would act to increase the absent father's involvement in the life of his children.
To obtain a better idea about shifts in receipt of child support following marital disruption, we again present data from the 1984 SIPP. The results are shown in Table 8. Just prior to marital disruption, about 16% of children lived in families receiving child support (average amount, $284 to $294 per month). This figure reflects the fact that a number of families undergoing disruption constitute second or higher-order marriages. Immediately following disruption, the fraction of children whose mothers received child support increased to about 45% (average amount, $334 to $351 per month). For all children, the proportion receiving child support declined over time, probably reflecting the fact that some of the mothers remarried or reconciled. Consistent with this impression, children whose mothers did not remarry or reconcile showed a slower rate of decline in the proportion receiving child support. In both instances, the average amount received increases. This increase is probably the result of a selection process whereby fathers who pay the least are less likely to pay anything as time passes.
In any event, the SIPP data are consistent with other sources in showing that the majority of divorced mothers do not receive child support payments from the absent father. Although the time frame examined is relatively short, it is also evident that the proportion of mothers receiving support declines over time. Interestingly though, more recent studies suggest a possible reversal of this trend with fathers maintaining greater contact with their children.39
While it may appear intuitive that the factors influencing awards would affect receipt, the two are only imperfectly correlated. That is, the factors that determine award of support are not necessarily those that determine receipt of support. The most important determinant of whether a mother receives child support from a nonresident father is the presence of a court-ordered award.31 Only 72% of divorced mothers receive an award of child support.
It is important to note, however, that this proportion varies widely according to the socioeconomic characteristics of both parents, the nature of their relationship, and the characteristics of the legal system.40
Perhaps the most important factor in determining whether an award is made is maternal marital status. While 72% of ever-married mothers have received a child support award, only 24% of never-married mothers have been awarded child support.32
A number of other background characteristics are also important in determining the award of child support. Beller and Graham found that black mothers are less than half as likely as white mothers to be awarded child support.40 This is primarily because black mothers are less likely to be married and, even if married, they are more likely to be separated rather than divorced.
Educational attainment, age, place of residence, and number of children are also related to award of child support. Composition differences in these variables help to explain some but not all of the lower rate of awards for black women. Women who are older and have more education are more likely to receive an award. Also, awards are positively associated with having younger children and having been married longer. Teachman reported similar findings but, contrary to Beller and Graham, found that the effect of race becomes insignificant when socioeconomic resources are controlled.41
While the award of child support depends on a wide variety of factors including characteristics of parents, children, and the marriage, the determinants of the receipt of support are more select. A few studies have found the receipt of child support to be most affected by characteristics of mothers and children.
Robins and Dickinson, using data from the 1979 Current Population Survey, found that receipt of child support was positively related to the age and education of the mother and negatively related to having young children and to the time since divorce.42 Robins and Dickinson included only one characteristic of fathers, income, which they found to be positively correlated with receipt of child support.
Peterson and Nord, using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), found that having a voluntary child support agreement and the amount of the award positively affected the likelihood of receiving support.31 However, after controlling for these factors, they found characteristics of the mother (for example, race, education, marital status, and number of children) to have no effect. Father characteristics were not available in this data set. More recently, using data containing information about both fathers and mothers, as well as child support arrangements (the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972), Teachman found that the receipt of child support was primarily dependent on the circumstances of fathers.43 When father characteristics were controlled, the characteristics of mothers and children had no direct impact on receipt of support.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Teachman found that fathers who remarried were more likely to pay child support than other fathers. This finding is consistent with those reported earlier by Hill, who suggested that remarried fathers are more "family-oriented" and so are more motivated to pay support.44 A closer physical proximity and visits with children are both positively related to the receipt of child support, probably reflecting fathers' overall involvement with children.
Seltzer also found the receipt of child support to be associated with father characteristics but examined their indirect effects through child custody.45 Using data from Wisconsin divorce cases, she found that fathers with higher incomes are more likely to acquire joint custody of their children. As such, families with joint custody tend to have higher-than-average amounts awarded because of the higher incomes of fathers. Surprisingly, however, despite higher awards, families with joint legal custody and those with sole custody did not differ in the level of support received. However, it is likely that children in joint custody arrangements probably benefit informally from these arrangements because they have more contact with fathers than children in mother-custody families.
It appears that fathers' motivation and ability to pay child support are the most important determinants of the receipt of child support. Unlike the award of support, which is decided in a more public environment subject to normative and legal constraints in favor of providing child support, the decision to send child support is less public and rests primarily with the father. Hence, the attributes of the mother have little effect on the actual receipt of support.
Because child support is the primary mechanism by which nonresident parents make contributions to the well-being of their children, most research has focused on the determinants of support awards and the receipt of payments. However, although child support payments are the predominant means of contribution, fathers may also help support their children in other, less formal ways. There has been some speculation that noncustodial fathers may substitute other means of support for more formal child support in order to have more control over the way in which the contribution is utilized.46
Working alone, and with Paasch, Teachman has examined other means by which noncustodial fathers may contribute to their children.43,47 Both examined whether and with what regularity single mothers receive from noncustodial fathers contributions such as payment for children's clothes, presents, vacations, dental care, and medical insurance; help with homework; and attendance at school events. Teachman, using the 1986 follow-up data from the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, found that the majority of noncustodial fathers seldom or never made contributions to their children. Among fathers who contributed, the most frequent ways were through child support, medical insurance, and dental care. Fathers were more likely to provide contributions requiring outlays of money rather than time. Very few fathers performed time-intensive activities, such as helping their children with homework or attending school events, which may be influenced by custody arrangements.
In addition, the evidence did not suggest that fathers substituted other forms of assistance for cash payments of child support. That is, a negative correlation between paying child support and providing other forms of assistance did not occur. However, fathers who provided at least one type of assistance were more likely to provide other types of assistance. This pattern indicates the presence of a small group of fathers dedicated to the overall well-being of their children.