child support supports interested adults

The U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement recently funded a brief on child support.  That brief emphasized the critical importance of the child support system that the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement supports.  That’s generally how bureaucracies justify continuing to do whatever they’re doing.

The brief obscured the actual net significance of legally determined and punitively enforced payments from non-custodial persons to custodial parents.  Among the brief’s key findings, bulleted, boxed, and placed at the beginning of the brief, was this: “Without child support {meaning the public program of legally determined and enforced payments from non-custodial persons to custodial parents}, child poverty would increase by 4.4 percent.”  That statement is literally false.  A footnote gives the justification for the falsehood:

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.[1]

The justification for this falsehood is thus that it’s similar to other falsehoods.  In case that’s not convincing enough justification, there’s the appended clause referring to “going onto public assistance.”  Without this falsehood, your taxes would go up!

Eliminating the child support program would not eliminate payments from non-custodial parents to custodial parents.  Most parents voluntarily support their children. That’s also likely to be true in normal conditions for non-custodial parents. In contrast to effects such as liberating 50,000 persons imprisoned for child-support arrears, the effect on children of eliminating child support enforcement is not clear.  Nationally representative data show that the level of child-support awards have little empirical relation to the level of impoverished parents’ total income.  For custodial parents receiving welfare payments under the program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, legally determined and enforced child support payments directly offset welfare payments.  Even with the existence of the child support program, about of third of providers of financial support to non-household children provide such support without any formal legal sanction.  Moreover, the yearly amount of such support is 70% of that provided through legally sanctioned agreements.[2]  Removing child support enforcement is much different from removing payments from non-custodial parents to custodial parents.

The child support enforcement system has done little to eliminate child poverty.  In the U.S. about 14 million children live in poverty.  According to the brief, “In 2008, 625,000 children would have been poor if they had not received child support, increasing child poverty by 4.4%.”  Given the above-described grave weakness of those calculations, the important truth that statement should communicate is that legally determined and enforced payments from non-custodial persons to custodial parents have little effect on child poverty. Child support is mainly important to child support agencies, lawyers, and other adults with financial interests in child-support programs.

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Read more:


[1] Sorensen (2010).

[2] See child support provider statistics, by existence and type of child support agreement.


Sorensen, Elaine (2010). Child Support Plays an Increasingly Important Role for Poor Custodial Families. Urban Institute Brief. Dec. 2010.

One thought on “child support supports interested adults”

  1. Frankly, the government should just issue a sort of benefits-style card, but it operates on child support instead. Then we’d see what’s popping.

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