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

Child Support Orders: Problems with Enforcement
Paula G. Roberts


First, this article examines the child support system and explains the flaws that exist within it. Next, recent reform efforts and their outcomes are described. Then, new reform proposals are presented and critiqued. Finally, the author's own prescription for child support enforcement reform in light of the need for child support assurance is given.

Children living in a two-parent family have a much greater chance of avoiding poverty than children living in a single-parent family. In 1990, 70.5% of children in the United States lived in two-parent households, consisting of children living either with both biological parents, in stepfamilies, or with adoptive parents (see the article by Shiono and Quinn in this journal issue). In 1991 the poverty rate for married-couple families with children under age 18 was 8.3%. In contrast, approximately one quarter of the children lived in single-parent households, 9.5% with a divorced parent, 7.7% with a never-married parent, and 7.6% with a separated or widowed parent. In 1991 the poverty rate for single-parent families headed by fathers was 19.6%; for single-parent families headed by mothers, it was 47.1%.1

Financially speaking, the families of greatest concern are those headed by females. Children living in single-parent families headed by mothers (constituting 84% of single-parent families) are more than twice as likely to be poor as children living in single-parent families headed by fathers.2 Although it is very important that all children who are due awards receive them, children living in families headed by mothers are of special concern because of their increased likelihood of being poor.

Bane suggests that there are a variety of reasons single-parent families headed by women are likely to be poor, including the loss of economies of scale; greater prevalence of divorce and death among poor families; low and irregular levels of alimony, child support, and public assistance; fewer adult earners in the family; fewer opportunities for females of families to work; and the fact that women receive lower wages than men when they do work.3

With regard to wages, there are a variety of reasons single-parent families headed by mothers are so likely to be poor. Despite some progress, women workers still tend to be employed in low-paying jobs. Thus, while most single mothers (72%) do receive wages and many work full time, their families are still poor.4 Nearly 23% of Hispanic mother-only families were poor in 1991, despite the fact that the mothers worked year-round, full-time. The corresponding numbers for white and African-American mother-only families were 9% and 18%.5 These mothers could take a second or third job to supplement their earnings, but doing so would mean even less time for parenting. Or they could seek public assistance.

A mother who has minimum wage or near-minimum wage earnings might get some help from the food stamp program. Cash assistance from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program would not be available in most states. If, however, the mother lost her job, then she might seek AFDC. If she has more than minimal assets (for example, a car or a bank account), she would not be eligible for help. Once she sold or used up these resources, she would be able to receive AFDC. As shown in Table 1, the amount the family would receive varies greatly from state to state, but in no state would the family income reach the poverty level, even when combined with the value of food stamps. In most states, the family would live in deep poverty.

One avenue for improving the financial status of families headed by mothers (whether these families are the result of divorce or out-of-wedlock births) is through child support payments from the noncustodial parent.6 If the mother could obtain regular child support payments, the financial picture would be better for many of these families. Those already working could have an income supplement that would move them out of poverty or near-poverty. Those relying on public assistance would have an incentive to seek employment because a combination of wages and child support could raise their income to at least the poverty line.7

Unfortunately, one reason for the high poverty rate in single-parent families headed by mothers is that noncustodial fathers rarely pay as much child support as they can or should. Frequently, they pay no support at all. The most recent Census Bureau data indicate that 42% of all custodial mothers do not even have a child support order. Among unmarried mothers, the number is even higher: 66% lack a support order.8

Just as important as the fact that many mothers don't have support orders is the fact that those with orders do not receive what is owed. There is about a fifty-fifty chance that a mother with a child support order will actually receive full payment.9 Some mothers will receive partial payment, but as Table 2 shows, even then almost one-fourth of all mothers with child support orders and one-third of poor mothers with such orders will receive nothing.10 Of those who receive payment, the amount received is insufficient to support the child fully. Available data suggest that custodial fathers face a similar situation. According to a study which used Wisconsin data, only 30% of custodial fathers had a child support award. Of those with an award, 40% received no payment.11

A series of interrelated problems leads to nonpayment of child support. Among these problems are difficulty in locating the noncustodial parent, the complexity of establishing paternity if the parents were not married or the father decides to challenge the paternity of a child born within marriage, the convoluted and time-consuming process for establishing a support order, and the difficulty of enforcing an order once it has been established. These problems are difficult to solve when both parents live in the same state. When the parents live in different states or one moves to another country, the problems are almost impossible to resolve under current law.12

If these problems could be solved, the financial status of children in single-parent families headed by mothers would be substantially improved. Researchers estimate that, if paternity were established, support orders obtained, and reasonable standards for setting support were in place, each year between $17 billion and $23 billion more than is currently being paid could be available to children in mother-headed families.13 In fact, studies indicate that most noncustodial parents have enough income to provide an adequate level of support to their children.14

It should be noted, however, that better child support enforcement will not move children whose noncustodial father is poor out of poverty. This statement is especially true if the father is nonwhite, if the parents have never married, if the children receive AFDC, or if any combination of these variables exists. In these situations, many fathers have too little income to make a substantial contribution to their children. Also, a small group of noncustodial parents will go to great lengths to avoid their child support obligations. Even a greatly improved child support enforcement system may not be able to force these parents to pay regularly. Some have suggested that a program called Child Support Assurance (CSA) be implemented to address these problems. (See the article by Garfinkel and colleagues in this journal issue.)

Under CSA, a minimally adequate monthly support payment would be made to the custodial parent (1) when the noncustodial parent pays the full amount he or she is capable of paying, but this amount is insufficient to keep the child out of poverty; or (2) when the noncustodial parent fails to pay or does not pay the entire amount of support owed. It is probable that a Child Support Assurance system would greatly improve the lives of many children, especially those living in families headed by mothers. If the mother knew that at least some child support would be received regularly each month, she could plan the family's economic future. If she were receiving AFDC, she would have an incentive to take a job even if it were low-paying because the guaranteed child support would supplement those wages. If she were already working, the regular support might enable the family to move to a better neighborhood, provide after-school care for a latch-key child, or allow the mother to drop her second job and devote more time to the children.

With regard to costs, a Child Support Assurance system is not prohibitively expensive if the underlying child support enforcement system can be improved. The more parents meet their obligation to their children regularly and on time, the less expensive a guaranteed child support system would be. Many Child Support Assurance advocates are thus also deeply involved in efforts to improve child support enforcement.