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Child Support


In 1998, there were 14.0 million single-parent families in the United States, comprising about 28 percent of all families with children. While growth in single parent families appears to have stabilized, the fraction of families headed by just one parent is up significantly since 1970, when just 11 percent were headed by single parents. In 1998, most one parent families were headed by women (11.9 million). Of these, 32.2 percent were never married, 30.8 percent were divorced, 13.3 percent were separated from their husbands, and 1.9 percent were widowed. Today about 25.8 percent of children in the United States under 21 are living in single-parent households, and a disproportionate number of them (roughly 40 percent) live in poverty.

Against this backdrop, child support has become an increasingly important public policy issue. In the United States the primary responsibility for child support collection rests with the states. The federal government, however, provides substantial financial support. Federal activity centers on the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Among other activities, OCSE administers the Federal Parent Locator Service, which helps track down missing parents, and the National Child Support Enforcement Reference Center, which distributes information about state programs.

State and federal government agencies are involved in the child support collection process at several points. When noncustodial parents are missing, states will attempt to locate them through various state-level information sources, including employment and unemployment records, tax files and motor vehicle registries. States can also turn to the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS) for assistance in tracking down parents across state lines. The FPLS has access to data from the Social Security Administration, the IRS, and the Selective Service System, among other sources.

Another critical precursor for child support collection is the establishment of paternity. The increased percentage of children born in the United States to unmarried women (32.8 percent in1998) has made this task more challenging, but advances in technology have helped. Today, most state child support enforcement agencies have the authority to order genetic testing in appropriate cases. In 1998, an estimated 848,000 paternities were established by state agencies, up from 245,000 in 1986.

Once a noncustodial parent has been found and parentage established, state judicial or administrative agencies may then order child support payments. The amount of such payments is typically based on state guidelines reflecting income and need. Such payments can be subsequently enforced, if necessary, through wage withholding, offsets against unemployment compensation payments, liens on property, seizure and sale of property, and other means. Federal legislation enacted in 1992 establishes criminal penalties for noncustodial parents who willfully fail to make payments for children residing in another state if such payments remain unpaid for more than a year or exceed $5,000. Federal legislation enacted in 1975 ensures that child support obligations may not be evaded by filing for bankruptcy.

While significant legal and programmatic efforts have been made over the years to improve the child support collection process, the results have been mixed. In 1998, an estimated 6.6 million noncustodial parents were located, 848,000 paternities established, and over 1.1 million child support orders were established. State agencies spent $3.6 billion to collect $14.3 billion in child support payments.

While these numbers demonstrate significant effort, much remains to be done. In 1997, of 11.9 million female-headed households eligible for child support only 59.5 percent had been awarded child support, only 36.4 percent actually received at least one child support payment, and only 22.3 percent received full payment. These percentages have remained essentially unchanged since the late 1970s, according to Census data.

- 4/1/01

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