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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

Child Support Orders: A Perspective on Reform
Irwin Garfinkel Marygold S. Melli John G. Robertson


During the past 30 years, the proportion of children living with only one parent has increased dramatically, from about 8% in 1960 to 25% in 1990.2 Of these children, 9.5% live with a divorced parent, 7.7% live with a never-married parent, and 7.6% live with a separated or widowed parent. (See the article by Shiono and Quinn in this journal issue.) By current estimates, more than one-half of all children born during the 1980s will live for a time with only one parent before reaching adulthood.3

America's child support system is in the midst of a profound transformation where judicial discretion is giving way to administrative regularity. Child support payments are routinely withheld from wages in an increasing proportion of cases. Blood tests and voluntary acknowledgments are rapidly replacing trials for establishing paternity. And, most important for our purposes, in less than a decade, the setting of the amount of child support has evolved from a highly discretionary decision with the amount set on a case-by-case basis to a system with federally mandated standards requiring the states to use mathematical formulas in setting the amounts.

We begin this article by examining the evolution of the current child support regime using formula-based guidelines, discuss some unresolved problems with those guidelines, and then look to the future of child support in terms of the proposal for a new Child Support Assurance (CSA) system.