B. Low-Income Fathers' Child Support Payments: Figures and Realities
Practices regarding establishing and modifying child support orders do not realistically take account of the large number of noncustodial parents who are as poor as the custodial parents and children with whom they are associated. Most fathers who do not pay child support are poor and unable to find jobs that would enable them to pay. About twenty-six percent of noncustodial fathers (about 2.8 million) are poor, and the vast majority of this group (approximately eighty-eight percent) does not pay any child support. These fathers earn an average of $5627 annually. One study found that only one-quarter of noncustodial fathers with incomes less than one-hundred-thirty percent of the poverty line worked full-time year round, and their average income was only $6989 (just above the $6800 poverty level for a single adult).
Another study found that sixty percent of poor fathers who do not pay child support are racial and ethnic minorities, and twenty-nine percent were institutionalized (mostly in prison) at the time of interview. Only forty-three percent of men not in prison were working, and those employed in 1996 worked an average of just twenty-nine weeks and earned $5627 that year. Their barriers to employment were also considerable: forty-three percent were high-school dropouts, thirty-nine percent had health problems, and thirty-two percent had not worked in three years. Overall, job prospects are not promising for men with already weak attachments to the labor force and other significant barriers to employment.
Given the dire employment and economic status of poor noncustodial fathers, it is not particularly surprising that child support collections from this population remain low. The OCSE has confirmed that the poorest children (i.e., those receiving government welfare payments) receive a small portion of child support collected overall. In 2010, families receiving public assistance accounted for fourteen percent of the caseload of the Child Support Enforcement Program; however, they represented only four percent of the cases for which child support was collected. In 2010, these children only received one-tenth as much child support collected through the enforcement system as did non-poor children (i.e., children whose families have never received public assistance). Additionally, the poorest children generally do not receive the full amount of child support they are owed. Among custodial parents with formal child support orders in place, only about thirty-five percent of parents who were never married, thirty-three percent who were Black, and thirty-six percent who were living in poverty, received the full amount of child support courts award.
The low rate of child support collections for poor children from their equally poor fathers has not changed significantly over time, nor has the child support enforcement program been successful in accomplishing its goal of reducing child poverty through enhanced collections from noncustodial parents. Indeed, there are more children living below the poverty line today than in 1975, the year in which Congress created the federal child support program. In 1975, seventeen percent of children in the United States lived below the poverty line. In 2010, twenty-two percent did.
Rather than succeeding in reducing child poverty, aggressive enforcement practices directed at poor families instead produce large unpaid child support debts. No- and low-income parents are responsible for the greatest portion of unpaid child support, according to the OCSE. Of the more than $70 billion in child support debt nationally, noncustodial parents who have no quarterly earnings or earn less than $10,000 annually owe seventy percent of all arrears owed to the government as reimbursement for welfare expenditures. A small number of child support obligors (eleven percent) owe a majority of the arrearages, and they each owe over $30,000 in debt. Yet, they are among the poorest obligors. Twenty-nine percent of child support debtors earn between $1 and $10,000, and thirty-four percent have no reported earnings. Noncustodial parents with more than $40,000 in annual income hold only four percent of child support arrears. The problem is nationwide; child support caseloads in every state include very low-income fathers who have accumulated enormous arrearages and who have virtually no prospect of ever satisfying the debt.