The pending U.S. Supreme Court case Turner v. Rogers concerns Turner’s failure to make court-order payments commonly called child support. These “child support” payments are based not on the financial needs of children, nor on the financial needs of the custodial parent, but on the administratively determined nominal income of the non-custodial person. A non-custodial man can be merely the sperm contributor. Child support is a government-run welfare system that distributes money to a woman in proportion to the income of the man with whom she had the relevant sex or who was otherwise established as father. As the facts of Turner v. Rogers illustrate, child support badly serves poor women and poor men.
When South Carolina imposed child-support payments on Turner, Turner was unemployed and Rogers was receiving state financial aid for parents. Rogers was required to declare the paternity of her child in order to receive state financial aid. She declared Turner to be the biological father. Using an administrative formula, South Carolina’s Oconee County Family Court imputed to Turner a nominal income of $16,632 per year. Using another administrative formula, the Court ordered Turner to pay Rogers $2690 per year (in equal weekly payments) as child support. Turner’s failure to pay this amount led to him being incarcerated six times for child-support arrears. Rogers, unable to support financially the child, relinquished custody to her mother and also became subject to a child-support order for the child. Thus Rogers is now subject to incarceration for child-support arrears, just as Turner is.
Rogers could have received a much different child-support award. Across the U.S. in 2003, 9% of custodial parents living below the poverty level had child-support awards averaging $554 per year. At the same time, 11% of custodial parents living below the poverty level had child-support awards averaging $11,013 per year. That 22-fold ratio in child-support awards for impoverished parents has nothing to do with the needs of children. It arises from differences in administrative formulas and difference in mating choices of impoverished custodial parents. Parents who had the relevant sex with higher-income persons get higher legal awards of child support.
Child-support awards have little relation to impoverished parents’ total income. Among custodial parents living in poverty in 2003, those with child support awards averaging $554 per year had average yearly money income of $7,340. Impoverished parents with child support awards averaging $11,013 per year had nearly the same average yearly money income ($7,642). In order for an impoverished mother to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), she must declare the child’s paternity and assign child support payments to the state. For parents receiving TANF, child-support awards determine not financial support for children, but the financial burdens on the non-custodial persons and the extent of state revenue. At least among impoverished custodial parents, considerable substitution between child support and other income sources apparently occurs.
Parents above the poverty level typically get more state-ordered financial child support than do parents living in poverty. Among parents with a child-support award and living above the poverty level, 25% had child-support awards averaging $11,467 per year. Among parents with a child-support award and living in poverty, only 11% had child-support awards about that level. Compared to parents living in poverty, parents living above the poverty level receive more child support because of assortative mating — higher-income persons are more likely to have sex with higher-income persons. Legally imposed financial child support is based on the income of the custodial parents’ relevant sex partner. The government-run child-support system is essentially a sex-payment system that re-enforces welfare inequalities.
The child-support system has on net harmed Turner and Rogers. The child-support system has imposed enormous burdens on Turner, including incarceration, for no more action that he took than to have sex as an unmarried 18 year-old in 1995. The child-support system has contributed to Turner’s poverty. The child-support system has done little to alleviate Rogers’ poverty. Because of her poverty, Rogers relinquished custody of her children to her mother in 2009. The child-support system has failed to support Rogers and her children.
Whatever Turner v. Rogers decides about the benefit of counsel for an indigent child-support debtor facing incarceration, the child-support system deserves more critical legal and policy scrutiny.
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- persons incarcerated for child-support debt
- differences between having sex and fathering a child
- gender inequality in child custody and child support
 For the case details described above, see Turner v. Rogers, Petitioner’s Brief, pp. 8-10.
 Available child-support statistics divide recipients into award-value groups. The above statistics are for the smallest ($1 to $999 per year) and the largest ($7000 and over) award-value groups. The average figures are the mean child-support award for all the recipients in the relevant award-level group. In 2003, child support actually received was 69% of the average child-support award.
 Sorensen (2010), which is work funded by the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement, states:
- Without child support, child poverty would increase by 4.4 percent.
- Child support represents, on average, 10 percent of poor custodial family income and 40 percent of income for poor custodial families who receive it.
These statements should be interpreted with respect to a crucial footnote in Sorensen (2010):
This analysis is similar to other analyses that examine family income with and without a specific income source without taking into account other changes that might occur if that income source is not received, such as going onto public assistance.
As noted above, considerable substitution between child support income and other income sources appears to occur. Analysis of child support not merely intended to buttress the status quo should consider how such income substitution would influence actual changes in the child poverty rate in response to changes in child support. In the U.S. in 2008, 19% of children (persons under age 18) lived in poverty. That indicates that current arrangements for supporting children are working quite poorly. More equitable distribution of child support could easily lower the child poverty rate.
Sorensen, Elaine (2010). Child Support Plays an Increasingly Important Role for Poor Custodial Families. Urban Institute Brief. Dec. 2010.