by Roger F. Gay

I am submitting testimony as an independent researcher and citizen. My 
interest in the poverty rate stems from my study of
welfare reform, which is focused on child support reform and research 
on the design of child support guidelines. [1,2,3] There
are many considerations that are interwoven in the child support award 
decision. Among them, particularly since the reforms of
the 1980s, are the macro level decisions pertaining to the federal 
welfare system and how child support might effect the poverty
rate, especially for members of female-headed, single-parent households.

The Family Support Act of 1988 mandated a dramatic change in the 
mechanism used to award child support -- mandatory use
of child support guidelines as presumptive award calculators. The 
amount, in aggregate awarded under the guidelines is about
250 percent of the amount that would have been awarded based on the 
traditional standards balancing the needs of children
with the relative ability of the parents to pay.

Although those reforms created the most dramatic changes in child 
support law in U.S. history, they have obviously not resulted
in an equally dramatic reduction in child poverty.

I have already presented written testimony to this subcommittee that 
the child support reforms of the 1980s would not result in
a significant improvement in the economic circumstances of poor single 
mothers. [4,5] Poverty data released by the Bureau of
the Census [6] confirms that prediction. I should add that I have not 
been alone with my prediction. There are many who do
not believe that getting tough with poor people will significantly 
improve the national unemployment figures or access to
non-traditional education and training opportunities.

What I would like to add in this commentary, are a few observations 
about changes in the poverty rate, with special focus on
”families with female householder, no husband present,” and make a few 
comments on policy.

Policy Considerations; Female-Headed, Single-Parent Families:

In considering the plight of single parents, one of the most important 
questions to be answered is how much their economic
security is tied to the same factors as those of every other family. 
Answering that question can provide a basis for deciding
whether special programs are always the best approach to improving the 
lives of this segment of the population, or whether the
primary concern should be to improve the nation’s economy in general; 
more business activity, more jobs, a broad array of
education and training opportunities as examples. In turn, such 
questions can be helpful in determining where government can
most efficiently provide the most effective support and where 
government involvement should end.

In the following sections, I will summarize comparisons between poverty 
in single parent households from 1959 to 1991,
poverty in the whole U.S. population, and poverty in families. Then I 
will briefly discuss the national record of child support
payments and the economy. A summary of conclusions is then followed by 
policy recommendations.

Poverty Rate: 1959 to 1991:

1. U.S POPULATION: The nation’s poverty rate fell dramatically between 
1959 (22.4 percent) and the late 1960s (12.1
percent) and then leveled out; fluctuating between 11 and 13 percent 
throughout the 1970s. From 1980 through 1991, the
poverty rate has fluctuated between 13 and 15.2 percent (+/- 8 percent 
from its median value). The rate in 1991 was 14.2
percent, approximately its median value for the last 11 years.

2. FAMILIES: The poverty rate for people in families fell along with 
the general poverty rate through the 1960s, from 20.8
percent in 1959 to a low of 9.7 percent in 1973 and has fluctuated 
between 11.5 and 14 percent from 1980 through 1991 (+/-
10 percent from its median value). The rate in 1991 was 12.8 percent, 
approximately its median value for the last 11 years.

3. FEMALE-HEADED, SINGLE-PARENT HOUSEHOLDS: The poverty rate for people 
in female-headed, single-parent
households dropped from almost 50 percent in 1959 to the high 30s seven 
years later and continued to drop more slowly to
under 35 percent in 1979. Since then this rate has fluctuated between 
35.9 and 40.6 percent (+/- 6 percent from its median
value). The rate in 1991 was 39.7 percent, almost 4 percent above its 
median value for the last 11 years.

Female-headed, single-parent households in comparison to others.

1. In 1959, 8 percent of the U.S. population lived in female-headed, 
single-parent households. That figure has steadily
increased to almost 14 percent in 1991.

2. In 1959, almost 18 percent of that portion of the U.S. population 
living in households with private income below the poverty
threshold, lived in female-headed, single-parent households. That 
figure has also steadily increased, more than doubling since
1959, to almost 40 percent in 1991. Adjusting for the increase in the 
portion of the population living in single parent households
produces an adjusted increase of approximately 25 percent.

3. In 1959, almost 9 percent of all members of family households in the 
U.S. lived in female-headed, single-parent households.
That figure has also steadily increased over 33 years to about 16.5 
percent in 1991.

4. In 1959, about 20 percent of all members of family households in the 
U.S. living in households with private income below
the poverty threshold lived in female-headed, single-parent households. 
That figure has also increased steadily since 1959 to
about 50 percent in 1991. Adjusting for the increase in the portion of 
people living in female-headed single-parent households
provides an adjusted increase of about 30 percent.

5. In 1959, the poverty rate for people living in female-headed, 
single-parent households was 2.2 times that of the U.S.
population as a whole. That figure increased fairly steadily through 
the early 1970s (high of 3.4 in 1973) and then began a
bouncy decline from the mid-70s, increasing again in the 1980s as other 
workers passed single mothers during economic
expansion and then declined again slightly as other worker statistics 
receded in the late 1980s. The figure was about 2.8 in
1991. The net increase since 1959 is 27 percent.

6. In 1959, the poverty rate for people living in female-headed, 
single-parent households was almost 2.4 times that of all
families. The history of this figure is similar to that of item 5 
above, leading to a value of 3.1 in 1991. The net increase was 29

Related Fluctuations in Child Support Payments:

In 1979, 55.2 percent of women potentially eligible for child support 
who were living below the poverty level were actually
supposed to be receiving private child support payments. In 1984, when 
the Child Support Enforcement Amendments were
passed, 53.2 percent were supposed to receive payments. In 1990, 55.8 
percent were supposed to receive payments. [7]

Of those who were actually supposed to receive payments, the percentage 
who received payments (according to survey of
mother’s) increased from under 60 percent in 1979 to over 70 percent 
during the much publicized economic expansion in the
1980s, and then began to retreat during the recessionary period in the 
late 1980s. It is quite noticeable that the child support
payment record changes with the overall health of the economy, just as 
employment, retail sales, and other economic measures
do. It is also quite evident that the trends were not interrupted by 
government policy reforms of the past decade.

Surveys of mother / recipients under-report the actual rate of payment. 
After accounting for unemployment, Braver et al. found
that divorced fathers who are fully employed have traditionally paid 
well without income withholding, and other hard-line
tactics; between 80 percent (as reported by mothers) and 100 percent 
(as reported by fathers) of what is ordered. [8] Taking
the reporting bias into account, we can see that the rate of 
unemployment or alternatively the general poverty rate for the nation
goes a long way to account for the rate of non-payment of court ordered 
child support.

Analysis of local data-bases on child support payments reveals that the 
actual amount paid in child support nationwide, has
more than doubled since award amounts have increased under mandatory 
use of child support formulas. This change has not
been a benefit to the poor. In fact, data examined in Indiana show that 
since 1980 the rate at which young poor fathers
abandon government collection programs has risen from under 30 percent 
to over 60 percent, leading to the conclusion that
unrealistic expectations coupled with policies which define poor people 
as outcasts and criminals have led to an erosion in
compliance with family law orders.


Congress does not have general authority to pass or enact laws dealing 
with family law issues, unless there is a connection or
”nexus” between such legislation and one of the areas in which it is 
authorized to act. [9]

Art. 1, sec. 8 of the Constitution, the so-called enumerated powers 
clause, limits congressional authority to act by specifying
general subject categories where Federal action is permissible. Under 
this clause and the Tenth Amendment, categories other
than those enumerated in the Constitution, including domestic relations 
topics, are reserved for state action. The rationale
behind this approach is that there are few overriding national 
considerations in the family law area, so states for the most part
should be free to legislate as they see fit on these questions. [10]

In the case of child support legislation, the claimed connection was 
that increasing federal government involvement would lead
to the collection of greater amounts of private child support, and thus 
result in a decrease in poverty among female-headed,
single-parent households and a savings to the government in AFDC payments.

No improvement in single-parent poverty has been associated with the 
child support reforms of 1975, 1984, and 1988. This
finding is consistent with the fact that the child support enforcement 
program has been losing, rather than making money for
taxpayers. Therefore, it can be concluded at least that the child 
support technology and enforcement experiment that began in
the 1980s has been a failure. There is in fact, no nexus between 
welfare and the severe restrictions on individual rights that have
occurred in the name of child poverty in the last decade. The record 
does not justify the continued systematic elimination of
human rights that is being contemplated by Congress and the 
presidential candidates.

The reason the reforms have not helped is primarily because 
non-custodial parents -- those who were supposed to start paying
the bill instead of the government -- are not exempt from unemployment 
and poverty themselves. You just can’t collect much
money from someone who doesn’t have any. In this regard, divorced and 
never-married fathers are no different than their
married counterparts. Secondly; the federal government has resisted 
involvement in treating the problem of broken families
holistically. From that standpoint, the current course is likely to 
increase psychological stress as non-custodial parents feel more
oppressed by government policy, and continue to cause an increase in 
the incidence of domestic violence and violence in the

Most scholars agree that there is a relationship between poverty, the 
welfare program, and family break up. Poor families are
much more likely to break up and much more likely to form families 
without marriage than middle and upper income families. It
has repeatedly been suggested that the breakdown of the family is an 
effect that can be traced to the design of our welfare
system, which requires single-parenthood as a condition of eligibility 
for many important benefits.

It is also well understood that we are behind many other nations in our 
delivery of the fundamental services, such as continuing
education and job training, that in addition to actually having skilled 
jobs available, can lead to self-sufficiency.


1. Congress should begin by rolling back the child support enforcement 
reforms of the 1980s. There is no realistic evidence
linking these reforms to changes in the level of child poverty or 
savings to taxpayers by reducing welfare costs. In fact, the
reforms have been expensive. Evidence suggest that if continued, the 
resulting waste will run into the billions of dollars.

2. The mandate for presumptive use of child support guidelines should 
be eliminated. The data confirm what was said in
testimony on the Downey / Hyde child support proposal. The arbitrary 
increases in child support resulting from the Family
Support Act have been beneficial to middle and upper income women; in 
situations where the increases are not justified on
theoretical grounds and in some cases will disenfranchise fathers from 
their children. Where there was at least a speculative
justification -- a preference for private over public child support -- 
the data show that no impact has actually occurred. The
mode of application of child support decision technology must be driven 
by technical achievement rather than political wishes,
in order that basic human rights are not traded away for the sake of 
shallow vision.

3. Funding for child support enforcement should be reduced to levels of 
1976 or earlier. When passing the original child
support and paternity establishment legislation in 1975, President Ford 
contended that the provisions went ”too far by injecting
the Federal Government into domestic relations.” He complained of 
”serious privacy and administrative issues,” and promised
to propose legislation to correct defects. [11] The welfare community 
did not favor the legislation and only a few Senators
spoke in favor of the legislation. When it passed, it did so at least 
in part because it was tied to more popular social service
amendments. [9] Poverty data confirms that the enforcement program has 
been unable to achieve its goals, and the program
has been losing a half billion dollars annually.

4. The money saved from abandoning programs which have proven 
ineffective and wasteful could be shifted into programs
providing such basic services as continuing education and training that 
can provide stepping stones to independence from
government income support. Of course, we all know that general 
improvement in the economy, a decrease in unemployment,
especially a growth in availability of skilled jobs to replace those 
being lost in manufacturing and elsewhere, would provide the
best outlook on improving conditions for everyone. It is obvious that 
general economic improvements provide the greatest
benefit to single parents and children, just as it does for others. 
Good jobs would make the best welfare program of all.


1. Gay, Roger F., Pilot Study on the Development and Evaluation of 
State Guidelines for Calculation of Child Support
Payments, Intelligent Systems Research Corporation Report; Special 
Report No. ISR-032590.01, Child Support Series
Report No. 1, April 16, 1990.

2. Gay, Roger F., Child Support Guidelines: Resolving the Dilemma, A 
Summary Report on Design of Federally Mandated
Child Support Schedules, Intelligent Systems Research Corporation 
Report; Special Report No. ISR-091490.01, Child
Support Series Report No. 2, September 30, 1990.

3. Gay, Roger F., Brief History of Prevailing Child Support Doctrine, 
in Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Conference of the
National Council for Children's Rights, Arlington, VA, March 19-22, 
1992. {Presented in relation to conference

4. Gay, Roger F., Written statement on the subject of the Downey / Hyde 
child support enforcement and assurance proposal,
submitted for the record to the Subcommittee on Human Resources, 
Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of
Representatives, July 17, 1992.

5. Chavez, Don, Commissioner (editor Phil Holman), Minority 
(Dissenting) Report of the U.S. Commission on Interstate Child
Support, presented to Congress in June, 1992.

6. Bureau of the Census, Poverty in the United States: 1991, table 2; 
”Poverty Status of Persons, by Family Relationship,
Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1959 to 1991,” and table C: ”Number of 
Families Below the Poverty Level and Poverty Rate:
1959 to 1991.”

7. Lester, Gordon H., Child Support and Alimony: 1989, Bureau of the 
Census, Current Population Reports, Consumer
Income, Series P-60, No. 173., September, 1991.

8. Sanford L. Braver, Pamela J. Fitzpatrick, and R. Curtis Bay, 
Non-Custodial Parent’s Report on Child Support Payments,
40 Family Relations, 180-185, April 1991.

9. Solomon, Carmen D., The Child Support Enforcement Program: Policy 
and Practice, Congressional Research Service,
Report No. 89-659 EPW, Washington, 1989, p 12.

10. Reimer, Rita Ann, Family Law: Authority of Congress to Legislate on 
Domestic Relations Questions, Congressional
Research Service, Report No. 89-152 A, Updated by Lou Fields, 
Washington, 1988.

11. Malone, Margaret, The Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984, 
Congressional Research Service, Report No.
84-796 EPW, Washington, 1984, p 1-2.