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June 19, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

This piece builds on my last two detailing the most recent (May, 2020) data from the U.S. Census Bureau on child custody and support.

The Bureau reports this information every couple of years and has since at least 1993.  One of the most remarkable aspects of the data is how little child custody arrangements have changed over the past 27 years.  Most noteworthy is the fact that the ratio of maternal to paternal custody has remained essentially unchanged over all that time.  In 2017, 80% of child custodians were mothers and 20% fathers.  In 1993 the numbers were 84% and 16% respectively.

It’s hard to believe that, with all we’ve learned about the value of fathers to children that so little headway has been made toward increasing fathers’ custody.  The simple fact is that the social science on fathers and children is now far ahead of what it was in the 1990s, so you’d think that we’d see that reflected in child custody data, but we don’t.  It’s as if all that vital information, all that painstaking work has gone for naught.

That’s doubly so given the fact that, as I reported last time, custodial fathers and their children are far less likely to live in poverty than are custodial mothers and theirs.  The poverty rate for custodial fathers is just 11.1% while that of custodial mothers is 27.3%.  That rate for mothers is almost twice the national average, while that for fathers is below the national average.  Plus, the median family income for custodial dads is a bit above $70,000 while that of custodial moms is $52,000.  So if one parent has to get the majority of the parenting time, you’d think fathers would be the favored parents, but needless to say, the opposite is true.

But it’s not just family court judges who are marginalizing fathers.  Much of the way custodial mothers gain that title is by never marrying in the first place.  Some 40.4% of those mothers have never been married and that alone makes gaining custody – or even parental rights – by a father an even steeper hill to climb than it otherwise is.  By contrast, just 29.3% of custodial fathers have never been married.  Meanwhile, 30.1% of custodial mothers are divorced and 39.1% of custodial fathers are.

My guess is that a hefty majority of those out-of-wedlock births never have custody decided by a judge.  So the glacial pace of paternal custody increase is not just due to family courts, but to mothers ensuring their own custody by avoiding marriage that at least gives fathers presumptive rights.


“The proportion of custodial parents who were supposed to receive support, but received none, increased from 24.2 percent in 1993 to 30.2 percent in 2017.”

As I said in my previous two pieces, the number of custodial parents with child support orders is decreasing and stands now at its lowest level since 1993.  The amount of child support ordered to be paid is also at an all-time low, and those are not inflation-adjusted figures, so the dollars ordered to be paid in 2017 are worth much less than they were in 1993.  And now we know that significantly fewer people are paying anything at all than was true in 1993.

All that suggests, as I said before, that parents generally don’t trust the child support system and are opting out of it.  Plus, that system isn’t doing much of a job at collecting the money ordered to be paid.  Again, the percentage of parents who received any child support at all in 2017 was almost at an all-time low – 69.8%.  The only lower year was 2015 – 69.3%.

Now, it’s true that the percentage of parents who received everything owed to them is respectable, by historical standards.  In 2017, 45.9% did, and that looks to be a bit above average for the years since 1993.  But the fact remains that the vast apparatus for collecting child support does so successfully in under half the cases.  That’s not exactly a full-throated endorsement of that apparatus.

Overall then, the Census Bureau data paint a picture of a child support system that many people want no part of and that does a generally poor job of its main job – transferring money from one parent to the other.  That’s true in part because and in part in spite of the draconian methods and the astonishing amount of money deployed by the child support enforcement system.

On the basis of these numbers alone, it’s a system that cries out for reform.

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