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November 21, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The United States Census Bureau has (finally!) published its data on child support orders and payments updated through 2011.  There’s been little substantive change in the figures since 2009, but the new report makes for sometimes-shocking reading.  Here’s the report (Census Bureau, 10/13).  Here’s an article on the new findings (Health News Digest, 11/20/13).

Entitled “Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2011,” the report offers an in-depth look at the realities of family courts, child support, poverty and related issues.  For the most part, it’s not a pretty picture.

Mothers still make up the vast majority of custodial parents.  They now total 81.7% of parents with custody, with fathers making up the other 18.3%.  That’s the highest figure for men in this country since the Census Bureau started collecting data on the subject, but it’s statistically no different from the 15.8% of fathers with custody in 1994.  The takeaway: despite 20 years of agitation by fathers’ rights organizations and increases in percentages of women in the workplace, despite reams of studies showing the value of fathers to children, family courts have altered their child-custody preferences not one bit.

When it comes to non-custodial parents being ordered by a court to pay child support, the difference between fathers and mothers is stark.  Over 56% of custodial mothers have a child support order while and astonishing 28.8% of custodial fathers do, down from 2009’s previous historical low of 30.4%. 

Why do courts fail or refuse to order mothers to support their children when they’re not the primary parent?  The Census Bureau makes no effort to answer that question because the data can’t do so, but it seems likely that, when a father gets custody, the mother is probably a uniquely bad parent.  The pro-mother bias of courts results in all but the worst mothers receiving custody, so the population of non-custodial mothers is particularly ill-suited to supporting their children.  Therefore, the ones against whom courts do issue an order are the cream of a comparatively rancid crop.

As in years past, non-custodial fathers do a better job across the board of paying what they owe than do non-custodial mothers.  Table 2 on page 7 of the Census Bureau’s report shows that, despite being ordered to pay more on average than mothers (fathers, $6,115; mothers $5,527), non-custodial fathers pay a higher percentage of what they owe (fathers, 63.2%; mothers, 54.6%).  Fathers were more likely than mothers to pay all of what they owed (fathers, 43.6%; mothers 41.4%) and less likely to pay none (fathers, 25.1%; mothers 32.0%).

Despite the clear and ongoing evidence that non-custodial mothers are less likely in every category to support their children than are fathers, parents who don’t pay are still often referred to as “deadbeat dads.”  That’s part of the cultural bias that can’t seem to grasp the concept that fathers make good parents and should have equal custody of their kids.

Despite receiving more money from the fathers of their kids than custodial fathers receive from mothers, custodial mothers are far more likely to live in poverty than are custodial dads.  Indeed, the children of custodial mothers are almost twice as likely as those of custodial fathers to live below the poverty line.

“The poverty rate of custodial mother families in 2011 (31.8 percent) was about double the poverty rate for custodial father families (16.2 percent).”

That’s true because custodial fathers are far more likely than custodial mothers to be employed at all and to be employed full-time.  Figure 2 on page 6 compares the employment patterns of custodial fathers and mothers.  It demonstrates that, even though the recession that began in 2008 severely impacted the employment rates of custodial fathers, at no time during the 1993 – 2011 period surveyed did custodial mothers even come close to the employment rates of custodial fathers.

So the percentage of custodial fathers who work full-time, year-round topped out at 76.9% in 1997 and in 2011 stood at a recession-era 65.9%.  By contrast, the highest percentage of custodial mothers in the same category was 52.3% in 2001.  In 2011, the percentage of custodial mothers working full-time, year-round stood at 47%.

Custodial fathers are far less likely than custodial mothers to be out of work.  The highest percentage of custodial fathers who didn’t work at all occurred at the absolute bottom of the recession in 2009.  That figure, 15%, was still lower than the lowest figure (18%) for out-of-work custodial mothers that came in the relatively flush days of 1999 and 2001.  Generally speaking though, custodial fathers are far less likely to be out of work altogether than are custodial mothers.  On average, since 1993, 10% of custodial fathers have not worked while 22% of custodial mothers haven’t.

Figure 4 on page 9 reveals the futility of child support enforcement efforts.  Statistically, there’s been little change in payments over time and what there has been appears to be more a result of fluctuations in the economy generally than of the draconian punishments invented by governments for non-payers.

From 1993 – 2011, the percentages of those who pay everything they owe, those who pay part of what they owe and those who pay none of what they owe have remained basically unchanged.

The percentage of those paying everything they owe has varied from a low of 36.9% in 1993 to a high of 46.9% in 2005.  In 2011, that figure was 43.4%

The percentage of parents paying part of what they owed ranged from a low of 29.1% in 1997 to a high of 38.9% in 1993.  In 2011, the figure was 30.7%.

And the percentage of those paying none of what they owed ranged from a low of 22.8% in 2005 to a high of 29.2% in 2009.  In 2011 that figure was 25.9%.

It may be that, in the early 1990s, child support enforcement methods began to slightly increase payments over previous years.  But since then, essentially nothing has changed.

Significantly, the Census Bureau data reinforce what we already know – that non-custodial parents who have regular contact with their kids are far more likely to pay the support they owe.  Therefore, 49.1% of non-custodial parents who had contact with their children in 2011 paid everything they owed in support.  Only 30.7% of parents with no contact did so.

Now, it may be argued that those parents were simply the ones most committed to their children.  That is, non-custodial parents who wanted contact with their kids were the ones who realized the value of supporting them.  In short, the data could just represent selection bias.

But we know from Sanford Braver’s book Divorced Dads, that’s not the case.  Braver discovered that mothers who didn’t interfere with their ex’s time with his kids were far more likely to receive the support they owed.  That of course makes sense in that no parent is inclined to write a check to the other parent for a child the other parent keeps from him.

Facts are important things.  Policy-makers should read these figures from the Census Bureau and use them to reform the practices of family courts.  Most importantly, it is well known that a parent’s access to money plays a big part in their child’s well-being.  Children with a custodial father have more of that resource than do children with custodial mothers, and the reason is not how much child support they receive.  We know that because non-custodial fathers pay more than do non-custodial mothers.  No, the reason fathers have greater financial resources than do mothers is that they work more and earn more than mothers do.

That should count for something in family courts.  Of course ideally, those courts should be ordering joint custody in the great majority of cases.  But state laws on custody mostly force judges to decide between parents and give the lion’s share of parenting time to one and next to none to the other.  Why that should be is a complete mystery, but it’s what most laws require and most judges do.

So as long as states are in thrall to the “winner take all” model of child custody, judges should start making winners out of fathers.

National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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