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The Regular Receipt of Child Support: A Multi-Step Process

Working Paper Number SEHSD-WP1989-04 or SIPP-WP-102
J. Peterson and C. Nord
Component ID: #ti795237400

Introduction

Children whose parents have separated or divorced or whose parents have never married face numerous difficulties that have the potential for temporary or even permanent harm. Not least among these difficulties is the sudden drop in income often experienced by the child's custodial parent following a separation or divorce, or the persistent low income of many never-married mothers (Bianchi and Spain, 1986; Duncan and Hoffman, 1985; Duncan and Rogers, 1987; Weiss, 1984). Despite recent interest in joint residential custody, about nine of every ten children living with single parents live with their mothers (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1986a). Because women,, on average, command considerably less in the market place for their labor than do men, the burden of providing for children usually falls on the parent least able to afford the cost.

The provision of child support payments, made by the non-custodial to the custodial parent on behalf of the child, is one method that has evolved in the U.S. legal system to ameliorate the economic impact of family disruption on children. Yet concern has grown that this method fails to adequately and fairly achieve its goal.

Federal and state governments, through welfare programs, also provide support to children in single-parent families -those with very low income. Many suggest that this support ought to be provided by the absent fathers. Could the number of persons receiving welfare and the average payments be reduced if absent fathers were made to pay their fair share for the support of their children? The answer is almost certainly "yes" (Robins, 1986). The child support enforcement program has been established in part to achieve this result. Yet the issue is complex. In many cases the absent fathers of welfare mothers have little income from which to make support payments. Some maintain a good relationship with their children and provide support in kind, including child care (Furstenberg et al., 1983; Wattenberg, 1984). In some cases attempts to locate and require payments from such fathers may only result in severing these ties.

In this paper, we examine factors that may determine how much child support income a custodial parent receives. Among these are characteristics of the custodial parent, such as her race, marital status, and education; her current economic well-being, as measured by her income, whether she receives AFDC, and whether her family income is below the poverty line; and information about custody arrangements and how the support agreement was reached if she has one.

The seemingly straightforward question of what factors determine how much child support is received encompasses several sub-questions, as previous researchers have discovered (O'Neill, 1985; Peterson, 1987; Robins and Dickinson, 1984; Sorenson and McDonald, 1981). Hardly anyone receives support payments without some kind of child support agreement -- whether reached voluntarily or through a court proceeding (Robins and Dickinson, 1984). Therefore the first question we ask is: what factors determine whether there has been a child support award? Because the amount actually paid is highly dependent on the amount that is mandated by the award, the next question is: what factors determine the amount of the award? Then, given an award of a certain size, we go on to ask: how much is actually received? However, non-payment of support is not simply the zero point on a scale that runs from zero to the amount of the award. The distribution of amounts paid is bimodal, a large proportion of mothers receiving no payments at all, and the rest receiving amounts that are somewhat normally distributed around the award amounts, though skewed in the downward direction. For that reason we separately examine the factors that determine whether a woman receives any support and, among women receiving some support, those that determine how much is in fact received. We also examine what factors determine how regularly child support is received among women who receive some child support.

This set of questions shows that to be a regular recipient of child support one must progress through a series of stages that begins with eligibility for child support, moves on to the establishment of a support agreement, then on to the actual receipt of some support, no matter how little. only then can the process culminate with the regular receipt of the full amount of support. At each stage along the way a certain proportion of women do not progress to the next stage, leaving a minority who, in the end, are regularly receiving child support.

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