by Elaine Sorenson

The Urban Institute

February, 1995


This report provides the first national estimates of noncustodial fathers' income and child support payments as reported by noncustodial fathers themselves. Noncustodial fathers are identified using the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), a nationally representative survey of 20,000 households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Previous research has analyzed specific demographic and geographic subgroups of noncustodial fathers, but has done so without the benefit of national estimates of noncustodial fathers' income and child support payments, which have not been available. Instead, researchers have relied on indirect methods to generate national estimates of noncustodial fathers' incomes and child support payments.

This report also examines the extent to which underreporting exists in the SIPP data, since previous efforts to identify noncustodial fathers in nationally representative surveys have met with considerable underreporting of fertility. We find relatively little underreporting of noncustodial fatherhood except among blacks, and we develop a method of reweighting to compensate for this underreporting. We also compare the ability of the SIPP to identify young noncustodial fathers with that of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), another national survey that can identify young noncustodial fathers. We find that the SIPP is able to identify noncustodial fathers as well as the NLSY once both samples are restricted to members of the noninstitutionalized population who answer the fertility questions.

We show that noncustodial fathers paid, on average, 7 percent of their personal income in child support in 1990. This figure is low, mainly because so many noncustodial fathers paid no child support in 1990. Even among those who paid, most spent less than 15 percent of their income on child support. In fact, over 80 percent of all noncustodial fathers either paid no child support or spent less than 15 percent of their personal income on child support.

The Wisconsin child support guidelines are used to ascertain how much more noncustodial fathers could pay in child support. Although these guidelines are used only in Wisconsin, they are similar to those used in many states. We find that another $34 billion of child support could have been paid in 1990 if all noncustodial fathers had paid child support according to the Wisconsin guidelines. This figure is three times the amount of child support actually paid by noncustodial fathers in 1990. We also show that a relatively small number of noncustodial fathers--another four percent--would have become poor had they paid this amount of additional child support.

Although we find that noncustodial fathers as a group are able to pay more in child support, 13 to 26 percent of noncustodial fathers are already poor or have extremely low incomes. Asking these noncustodial fathers to pay child support may result in shifting poverty from one group to another rather than in alleviating it. Almost 90 percent of these poor or low-income men were not working in 1990 or were working intermittently, and almost half had not completed high school.

This research identifies four factors that contribute to the nonpayment of child support: out-of-wedlock childbearing, poverty among noncustodial fathers, underemployment among noncustodial fathers, and the presence of second families. Among those who do not pay child support, nearly 60 percent of black noncustodial fathers and 36 percent of nonblack noncustodial fathers had their children out of wedlock and thus are probably not legally required to pay child support. As just mentioned, some noncustodial fathers are already poor and thus find it economically difficult to pay child support. In addition, nearly one-third of noncustodial fathers who did not pay child support in 1990 were out of work for at least part of that year, making it economically difficult from them to pay child support. Finally, many noncustodial fathers who do not pay child support have established new families, placing additional economic constraints on their ability to pay child support.

We identify two additional factors that contribute to the disparity between what noncustodial fathers actually pay in child support and what they could pay under the Wisconsin child support guidelines. We estimate that one-third of ordered support went uncollected in 1990, representing $7 billion that year. We also find that average award amounts are considerably lower than they would have been under the Wisconsin guidelines. If child support awards had been set according to those guidelines, another $7 billion of child support would have been awarded in 1990.

Our findings identify several policy objectives that could address the weaknesses in the current child support enforcement system: increasing paternity establishment and child support obligations; providing employment and training opportunities for low-income noncustodial fathers with the goal of enhancing fathers' ability to pay child support; reviewing the treatment of second families; increasing collections of ordered support; and updating child support awards to reflect changes in the cost of raising children and in the parents' economic situation.