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March 7th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
A New Jersey woman was arrested two days ago for failure to pay child support.  Brenda Alvarado owes $9,411 in back child support, a court issued a warrant for her arrest and her new address is the Salem County Correctional Facility near Mannington.  Read about it here (NJ.Com/3/3/12).

That of course is no big deal except for the fact that the article is possibly the only one I’ve ever read whose headline refers to a mother being arrested for not paying child support.  Now, needless to say, there are no references to her being a “deadbeat” mom that are so fashionable in refering to men who’ve fallen behind, but truly, the arrest of a mother on child support charges is not an earth-shattering event.

But I would like to use her arrest to speculate on a few things, but first, the facts.  The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent data shows that non-custodial mothers are far less likely to pay the support they owe than are non-custodial fathers.  So fathers pay 61.7% of what they owe while mothers pay only 54.6%.  Forty-two percent of fathers pay everything they owe but only 34.1% of mothers do.  But more interesting than that is the fact that so few non-custodial mothers are ordered to pay support.  Some 54.9% of non-custodial fathers are the subjects of child support orders while only 30.4% of mothers are.  In other words, fathers are about twice as likely as mothers to be ordered to pay support.

I wonder why that’s the case.  Why would courts be so markedly less willing to order a mother to pay support than to order a father to do so?  Over the years, there’s always been a pretty wide spread between the percentage of mothers and fathers paying support.  For example, in 2009, it was 14.5%, but in 1993 it was 17%, while in 2001, it was a hefty 25%.

So the courts are being consistent; they reliably order mothers to pay support much less often than they do fathers.  It’s a strange situation because clearly children need support regardless of who cares for them the most day to day.  And even if the custodial parent has lots of money and doesn’t need the other parent’s support, courts still order the other to pay because, irrespective of  the child’s need, parents need to bear responsibility for the children they help bring into the world.

And the answer doesn’t come from the fact that women earn less than do men on average.  We know that because the average child support ordered in 2009 for men was $5,997 per year versus $5,601 for women, or, a little over a 6% difference.  So the earnings on which support is based are very nearly the same.  That means the mothers and fathers who are ordered to pay support are, on average, very similar financially.

But that of course is not the case in the economy generally.  We know that women earn much less than do men largely because they work fewer hours and at jobs that pay less than the ones typically worked by men.  So if non-custodial mothers are ordered to pay about what NC dads are, that must mean that, on average, they tend to work more and earn more than women generally.  That makes sense.  The more you work and earn, the less childcare you do and the greater the likelihood that you’ll end up the non-custodial parent following divorce.

But that still doesn’t answer the question “why are so few NC moms ordered to pay support?”  We’ve heard in the past that fathers who get custody of children are far less likely to ask their exes for child support for fear of triggering a custody battle that the dads assume they’ll lose.  So, faced with a mother who’s willing to give up the kids, the dads take what they can get – the children – and don’t demand more.  That’s a reasonable supposition, but I suspect there’s more to the answer.

Meanwhile, the rates at which any support is ordered have been coming down over the years.  In 1993, 59% of custodial mothers and 42% of fathers got an order of support.  In 2001, 63% of mothers and 38% of fathers did.  By 2009, it was 54.9% versus 30.4%.  And the gross numbers haven’t changed much over the years.  In 1993, 11.5 million mothers had custody versus 2.1 million dads.  By 2009, the numbers were 11.2 million mothers and 2.4 million fathers.

So it’s hard to know what to make of the fact that the overall percentage of custodial parents with support orders has gone down – and precipitously at that – over the last couple of decades.  Those are decades, after all, in which we’ve seen ever greater awareness of divorce, child custody, fathers’ rights and the value to children of shared parenting.

I’d say one possibility is an increase in shared parenting in which neither parent pays support.  Or it may be that parents are relying on each other to decide what happens regarding the kids post-divorce and that happens to mean fewer child support orders.

The data don’t lie, so the question is “what do they mean?”  The answer isn’t altogether clear.

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