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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 decade, the basis of the American child support system has shifted from judicial discretion toward administrative regularity. The amount of child support owed is increasingly determined by numerical formulas—child support guidelines—established by state commissions or legislatures. Two types of guidelines have been adopted in all but four states. These are income shares and percentage of income. Both are based on the principle that noncustodial parents should share the same percentage of income with their children as they would have if they had lived with the child. Under the percentage of income guidelines, the amount owed depends only upon the income of the non-custodial parent and the number of children owed support, whereas under the income shares guidelines, the amount also depends upon the income of the custodial parent and expenditures for child care and extraordinary medical costs. While the latter method appears to many to be more equitable because it takes account of a greater number of factors, we have argued that the equity gains are debatable. Perhaps the most important advantage of the percentage of income guideline is that it allows orders to be expressed as a percentage of income and thereby permits automatic updating of awards.

Adoption of a national child support assurance system would complete the shift from judicial discretion to administrative regularity and add a publicly guaranteed minimum benefit. A CSA system could substantially reduce poverty and dependence on welfare at little extra cost.

A stronger child support system that transfers more money from both noncustodial parents and the public will increase the economic security and well-being of children of divorce. Child support alone, however, can accomplish only so much. For example, even a perfectly efficient child support enforcement system—awards in all cases, updated to existing guidelines, and paid in full—combined with a generous assured benefit of $3,000 for the first child would eliminate only half the poverty gap for children potentially eligible for child support.68 Further reductions in the economic insecurity facing children of divorce can be achieved only by greater public investments in children. What is needed is a comprehensive agenda like that recommended by the National Commission on Children which includes, in addition to a Child Support Assurance system, a $1,000-per-child refundable tax credit in the personal income tax, national health insurance, and expanded provision of child care.69