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March 2, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’ve written a good bit about child support and often enough pointed out that the popular conception of the “deadbeat dad” is more of a misconception than anything. It’s common in the news media and popular culture to portray non-custodial fathers as uncaring about their children, and one of the ways to promote that view is to emphasize non-payment of child support.

That of course is wrong on many different levels, but nowhere is its inaccuracy made clearer than when we look at how non-custodial mothers do when they’re asked to pay support. As I’ve written many times and data from the Census Bureau demonstrate, non-custodial mothers are significantly less reliable about paying the support they owe than are their male counterparts.

I’ve gone into the data in some detail, but this article goes deeper than I ever have (Five Thirty-Eight, 2/26/15). It’s well done and should be required reading for anyone who wants to have an informed opinion about the issue of child support. Amazingly, the writer, Mona Chalabi, was even interviewed by National Public Radio.

The subject arose when Chalabi received an email from “Jack.

I heard a piece of news that sounded strange: The proportion of deadbeat moms (women who do not fulfill their child support obligations) is higher than for deadbeat dads.

Is this true?

Of course it sounded strange. Jack has heard the popular narrative often enough to have absorbed its message – dads don’t care about their kids, so they fail to pay the support required. Interestingly, Chalabi thought the same thing; after all, she’s imbued with the narrative too.

But then she consulted the Census Bureau and her understanding of the matter changed.

I’m not sure where you heard your claim, but it appears to be a correct one. In 2011, 32 percent of custodial fathers didn’t receive any of the child support that had been awarded to them, compared with 25.1 percent of custodial mothers. That’s a relatively small difference. And when you look at the other extreme (i.e., the percentage of parents who receive the full amount), the difference isn’t statistically significant at all: 43.6 percent of custodial mothers compared with 41.4 percent of fathers.

Then there’s the gray area in between paying nothing and paying everything. The most common amount of child support due to custodial mothers is $4,800 annually, of which $2,500 is typically received (52 percent). For custodial fathers, median annual child support is less — it’s $4,160 — and fathers receive 40 percent of the amount they’re due.

That’s nothing readers of this blog didn’t already know, but it’s good to see the truth getting a yet wider audience. Then she gets into the nitty-gritty of who earns what, who lives in poverty, etc.

So far, the data isn’t looking great for mothers who don’t live with their kids, is it, Jack? But there’s more to it — custodial fathers are in a better situation financially, even without child support payments. Custodial dads who don’t receive the child support they’re due have an average household income that is $9,749 higher than dads who do get child support. For custodial moms, it’s a completely different story: Those who don’t receive the child support they’ve been awarded have a household income that’s $4,132 lower than moms who do.

That’s not all. The average household income of a dad who doesn’t get the child support money he’s due is $51,791. For moms, that figure is $26,231.

Poverty rates also differ between custodial mothers and fathers, even if you set aside whether or not they’re receiving child support payments. In 2011, 31.8 percent of custodial mothers were living in poverty — the figure for custodial fathers is half that. That gap has persisted since 1993, although it narrowed in 2001 and again in 2009.

Although Chalabi doesn’t say it specifically, whether or not a parent receives child support has essentially nothing to do with whether or not the live in poverty, or indeed what their financial situation is. The simple fact is that custodial fathers earn far more than custodial mothers and are far less likely to live in poverty even though they receive less of what they’re owed. That’s because they do more paid work than do custodial mothers.

In fact, the overall employment status of custodial mothers and custodial fathers looks very different. Mothers were far more likely than fathers to be in part-time work or working for only part of the year, as opposed to in full-time work, and they were also more likely to be out of work altogether.

So the fact of being a custodial parent isn’t what’s keeping mothers in poverty. They receive more money from their children’s fathers than their male counterparts and they’re far more likely to have a child support order in place. Over half of non-custodial dads have been ordered by a court to pay support, but under 29% of non-custodial mothers are, facts Chalabi acknowledges.

So why the huge difference between mothers and fathers when it comes to having a child support order? Chalabi has some good information for us.

Let’s consider for a moment a separate group of custodial parents: those who weren’t awarded child support in the first place. There are lots of them to look at — nearly half of all custodial mothers and three-quarters of custodial fathers don’t have a legal agreement for child support payments in place. When asked why, custodial fathers are twice as likely to say “child stays with other parent part of the time.” They’re also slightly more likely to cite financial reasons like “child’s other parent provides what she can” or “child’s other parent could not afford to pay.”

That’s probably an artifact of their earning more and therefore being more relaxed about whether Mom is paying what she owes or not. Such, at any rate, is my guess. But there’s more.

Whether a custodial parent is black, white or Hispanic doesn’t really change the likelihood that he or she will get the full amount of child support owed, but it does change the chances of being awarded child support in the first place. Only 38 percent of black custodial parents are awarded child support, compared with 54 percent of white custodial parents...

Like race, marital status3 affects the chances of being awarded child support. Only 41 percent of never-married custodial parents are awarded child support, compared with 64 percent of those who are divorced and remarried. Unlike race, however, marital status makes a big difference in the likelihood that a parent will receive the child support payments that he or she has been awarded: Custodial moms and dads who have never been married or are in their first marriages are much less likely to get any of the payments they’re due.

That’s yet another reason why choosing single parenthood is a bad idea. And of course the connection between marriage and paying support is obvious. A father who’s never been married to the mother of his children may well have very limited contact with them and, as the Fragile Families and Child Well-being data show, that contact tends to grow more limited as time goes on and new men come into Mom’s life. Plenty of social science shows the unsurprising fact that men who aren’t allowed access to their children tend to be less reliable about paying support than those who are.

Then there’s the infamous Title IV-D problem. When a custodial parent receives federal welfare benefits, she must identify the father of the child so a support order can be established. When that happens, and the NC parent starts paying, the money goes straight to the state to reimburse it for what was paid the custodial parent. That is, the child support payments don’t go to the mother or the child, but to the state.

That’s a double whammy for most of those dads. The first is that they don’t get to see their kids very much; the second is that the money they pay doesn’t even go to the kids, but to the state. Neither is a very strong encouragement to pay.

Unfortunately, this is where Chalabi blows it.

If going through the state system as opposed to divorce courts means a parent is more likely to be poor and more likely to be concerned with chasing down child support payments, that could explain why a higher percentage of custodial moms are getting the child support they’ve been awarded. When I looked at the divorce rates of custodial parents, I spotted a pretty big difference: Only 40 percent of custodial moms are either divorced or divorced and remarried, compared with 52 percent of custodial dads.

Both sentences draw wrong conclusions. Divorce means the couple was married, and that in turn means the NC parent is more likely to pay, not less. Chalabi said so herself earlier in her article. And while the poor may be “more likely to be concerned with chasing down child support payments,” their former partners are also likely to be poor and unable to pay. Face it, being poor doesn’t make it more likely that a parent will either pay or receive child support; quite the opposite.

No, there’s a far simpler explanation for why fathers are better at paying support than are mothers; they work more and earn more money. They’re therefore more able to pay, so they do.

But that’s the article’s only shortcoming. Otherwise it does well at demonstrating important truths about child support. As we’ve so often seen, that truth is at odds with the popular narrative of the uncaring dad who callously spurns his children. Slowly, we’re coming to grips with reality.

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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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