In 2011, more than one-quarter of all children under age 21 living in families had a parent who was not living in the home. Most often, children living with just one parent live with their mothers. These families have a higher likelihood of living in poverty, and child support payments can make an important contribution to total income.,
State and federal policy changes have strengthened child support enforcement in recent years. One of the effects of strong child support enforcement can be to make it more likely that young mothers exit and stay off welfare.
However, a third of non-custodial fathers live in poverty. In 2010, almost a quarter (24 percent) of child support payments were made through wage withholding, and only 22 percent were paid directly to the custodial parent. Some analysts have identified states’ policies of retaining payments due to children of TANF (welfare) recipients as a disincentive to payment of child support. More than 40 percent of non-custodial fathers are responsible for making payments for more than one child, increasing their financial burden.
Fathers who pay child support are more likely to spend time with their children. It is not clear, however, whether monetary contributions encourage fathers to develop an emotional connection with their children, or whether involved fathers are more likely to pay child support. In any case, some have argued that policies to strengthen the enforcement of child support should not be structured in a way that discourages the involvement of low-income fathers with their children.
Among custodial parents with a child support award, the percentage who received full payment of all support owed them in the previous year increased from 37 percent in 1994 to 47 percent in 2005 and 2007, before falling to 41 percent in 2009. The proportion was 43 percent in 2011. The share who received partial payment declined during the 1990s, from 40 to 30 percent, but has remained steady over the last decade, and was 31 percent in 2011. (Figure 1) The percentage of custodial parents who were owed support but received no payment remained relatively stable between 1994 and 2007, ranging from 24 to 26 percent, with a significant rise to 29 percent in 2009, falling back to 26 percent in 2011. (Appendix 1)
Between 1994 and 2003 the percentage of custodial parents who had a support award increased slightly, from 57 to 60 percent. Since then, the proportion has decreased, and was 49 percent in 2011. (Appendix 1)
Custodial parents who have never married are substantially less likely than custodial parents who have ever been married to receive the full child support payment owed them. In 2011, 35 percent of never-married custodial parents reported that they received full child support payments in the previous year, compared with 47 percent of ever-married custodial parents. (Appendix 2)
Custodial parents with at least a college degree are more likely than those without a high school diploma to receive the full amount of child support payments awarded to them. In 2011, among parents who were due child support payments in the past year, only 36 percent of custodial parents with less than a high school degree reported that they received their full child support awards in the previous year, followed by 42 percent of those with a high school diploma only, 43 of those with some college or an associate’s degree, and 51 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or more. (Figure 2)
The percentage of custodial parents who receive full child support payments varies considerably by age. In 2011, 14 percent of the 7,000 custodial parents ages 15 to 17 who were supposed to receive child support payments in the previous year received full payments, compared with 37 percent of those 18 to 29 years old, 42 percent of those 30 to 39 years old, and 48 percent of those 40 years and older. (Figure 3)
In 2011, 29 percent of custodial fathers had been awarded child support, compared with 53 percent of custodial mothers. (Appendix 1)
Especially for families with incomes below the federal poverty line, child support payments represent an important component of their income. In 2011, for all families who received child support, the average amount was $5,088—about 16 percent of their average yearly income ($31,517). However, for families living below the poverty line, the average annual amount received was $4,503—about 52 percent of average income ($8,676) for these custodial parents. 
The majority of custodial parents also receive non-cash payments from absent parents. In 2011, 57 percent reported that their child’s absent parent provided some form of non-cash payment in the prior year. Also, 22 percent of all custodial parents reported that their child’s absent parent provided health insurance in the prior year.
The Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse, sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, offers research related to improving incentives for child support payment and barriers to payment.
Data are based on parents who live with their own children under age 21, without the child’s other parent living with the family. Child support income reflects payments that custodial parents received during the previous calendar year, as well as other types of support. Children who might be eligible for child support, but are living with neither biological parent, are not included.
For more information, see Grall, T. (2013). Custodial mothers and fathers and their child support: 2011, Current Population Reports P60-246.
Child Trends calculations based on: Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support [various years}, Current Population Reports. Table 1 and Detailed Tables. Available online at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/childsupport/cs11.html.
Data for payments and awards by certain demographic characteristics: U.S. Census Bureau, Child Support: 2011, Detailed Tables. Available online at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/childsupport/chldsu11.pdf See Table 4.
Survey April (Child Custody) Supplement
|Total number of custodial parents (in thousands)||13,690||13,715||13,949||13,529||13,383||13,951||13,605||13,743||13,672||14,440|
|Percent awarded child support||57.0||58.1||56.5||58.7||59.1||60.0||57.3||54.0||50.6||48.9|
|Percent due child support in past year2||48.9||50.7||50.3||50.2||51.7||52.0||50.0||46.4||43.1||43.4|
|Gender of Caregiver|
|Receipt of due child support|
|Received full payment3||36.9||42.3||46.2||45.1||44.8||45.3||46.9||46.8||41.2||43.4|
|Received partial payment3||38.9||33.4||29.1||28.6||29.2||31.2||30.3||29.5||29.6||30.7|
|Did not receive payment3||24.2||24.3||24.7||26.3||26.1||23.5||23.0||23.7||29.2||25.9|
|Percent who received non-cash payment by absent parent|
|Any form of non-cash payment||–||–||56.4||59.1||61.0||59.0||61.0||57.6||60.3||56.7|
| 1Data reflect amounts of child support received in previous calendar year.
2Among all custodial parents (Parents living with own children under 21 years of age whose other parent is not living in the home).
3Among those who were due child support in past year.
Source: Child Trends calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau. Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support [various years], Current Population Reports. Table 1 and Detailed Tables. Available online at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/childsupport/cs11.html.
|Total supposed to receive payments||Total received full payments||% received total payments|
|All custodial parents||6,262,000||2,716,000||43.4|
|Race and Hispanic origin|
|Less than HS diploma||800,000||291,000||36.4|
|High school graduate/GED||1,809,000||765,000||42.3|
|Less than 4 years of college/Associate’s degree||2,425,000||1,040,000||42.9|
|Bachelor’s degree or more||1,228,000||621,000||50.6|
|Below poverty threshold||1,707,000||676,000||39.6|
|40 years and over||2,517,000||1,219,000||48.4|
|Number of own children present from absent parent|
|Four or more||287,000||118,000||41.1|
|1 Data reflect the amount of child support received in previous calendar year.
2 People of Hispanic origin may be any race.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, “Child Support: 2011,” Detailed Tables. Available online at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/childsupport/cs11.html. See Tables 4 and 5.5.
McLanahan, S. and Sandefur, G. (1994). Growing up with a single parent:
What hurts, what helps.Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Huang, C-C, Kunz, J and Garfinkle, I. (2002). The effect of child support on
welfare exits and re-entries. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 21(4),
U S Census Bureau. (2012). Selected characteristics of support provided on behalf of children under 21 years old living in another household by gender of provider: 2010, Support Providers. Available at http://www.census.gov/people/childsupport/data/providers2010.html
Cancian, M., Meyer, D.R., & Roff, J. (2007). Testing new ways to increase the economic well-being of single-parent families: The effects of child support policies on welfare participants (discussion paper 1330-07). Madison, WI: Institute for Research on Poverty. Available at www.irp.wisc.edu/publications/dps/pdfs/dp133007.pdf
U S Census Bureau. (2012). Op. cit.
Koball, H., & Principe, D. (2002). Do nonresident fathers who pay child support visit their children more? Assessing the New Federalism B-44. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute. Available at http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/310438.pdf
Grall, T. (2013). Op. cit. Table 9.
Child Trends Databank. (2014). Child Support Receipt. Available at: http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=child-support-receipt
Last updated: October 2014