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May 17, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Last time I introduced the latest Census Bureau data on custodial and non-custodial parents and child support.  As usual, hard facts make for some interesting reading. 

Some of that interesting reading includes the fact that, since 1993, the amount of child support ordered by courts has been declining.  In 2017, the latest year for which the Bureau has statistics, the average amounts ordered by courts for both non-custodial mothers and non-custodial fathers, was at the lowest point since 1993.  I speculated that the reason for that is that perhaps judges have come to realize what so many of us have known for a long time – that child support orders are often set too high.  So possibly the decline indicates a coming to grips with that fact on the part of courts.

Two very wise people have offered other explanations.  One is that the incidence of equal parenting may be on the rise and, since some states reduce child support as parenting time increases, average orders decrease accordingly.  I suppose that’s possible, but we really don’t have much evidence to let us know one way or the other.  One reason given the Census Bureau by parents for not requesting a formal child support order was “child stays with other parent part of the time,” but obviously that bears little on the incidence of shared parenting.  And the data don’t go into types of custody or parenting time.

Still, it’s an interesting theory.

The second idea is that women are working and earning almost more than ever now and often more than their husbands.  So, since mothers have custody far more than fathers (80% vs. 20%), if they earn more, the amount Dad has to pay likely decreases.  Again, that’s a possibility for custodial mothers, but it doesn’t explain the parallel decline in child support orders for custodial dads.

Whatever the causes of the decline, it’s good news.  Child support levels have always been set too high, at least on average, so any reduction is a trend in the right direction.

Meanwhile, back to the Census Bureau data.

As expected, children living with a one parent and not the other one are far more likely to live in poverty than other children.  Or are they?

“The poverty rate in 2017 of all custodial-parent families with children under 21 years of age was 24.1 percent, 10.5 percentage points higher than the poverty rate of all families with children under 21 years old (13.6 percent).”

Children living with custodial mothers were particularly prone to poverty.

“Poverty rates vary greatly among types of custodial-parent families. The poverty rate of custodial-mother families in 2017 (27.3 percent) was statistically higher than the poverty rate for custodial-father families (11.2 percent).”

The bureaucrats that write for the Census Bureau rightly phrase the data dispassionately, but the difference in poverty rates between custodial fathers and mothers is quite large.  Those mothers are about 2.5 times as likely to live in poverty as are the fathers.  More remarkable is the fact that of the four sets of parents reported on – custodial mothers, custodial fathers, all custodial parents and all families with children under 21 - custodial fathers were the least likely to be impoverished.

In case judges want to know, those data tell us something quite important – that, as long as we insist on a system of primary or sole parenting, fathers should be the primary or sole parent far more often than should mothers.  After all, we know that poverty is not a good situation in which a child should grow up.  So if fathers are the least likely of all parents to live in poverty, they should be the default custodians.

Now, it goes without saying that the payment or non-payment of child support does not explain the difference in the incomes of custodial mothers and fathers.  Fathers pay more than do mothers across the board, but are far less likely to live in poverty, so, whatever else may be true, the lack of child support isn’t the reason children are brought up in poverty.

More on this next time.

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