University of Wisconsin–Madison
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Child Support and Income Equality

Historically, child support policy has been influenced by the higher average employment and earnings of men, relative to women, and a related perception that noncustodial fathers have more resources than custodial-mother families. However,  some policymakers and researchers have become concerned that, for some families, child support may exacerbate inequality, taking resources from a noncustodial parent with low income and giving it to a custodial-parent family that is already better off. While there are a variety of policy arguments for different levels of child support in these situations, these arguments are generally made without reference to data. Thus, this study aims to provide evidence on the role of child support transfers in equalizing income between custodial and noncustodial parent families by comparing the relative economic well-being of matched pairs of resident mothers and nonresident fathers.

This analysis highlights a number of key outcomes. Many resident parents have very low incomes, and the child support system cannot be the primary solution for the economic difficulties of single-parent families. Many nonresident parents also have high poverty rates, and most of mothers who are poor pre-child support are connected to fathers who are also poor. Alternative sources of income might be needed to improve the economic status of the children. At the same time, the child support system is remarkably effective in transferring income, thus succeeding in enforcing the financial responsibility of nonresident parents, even when it does not also reduce inequalities between parents. In some cases these transfers are from poor nonresident fathers to non-poor resident mothers. However, by all our measures, child support transfers reduce poverty rates for resident mother families by more than they increase poverty rates for nonresident fathers.


Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Family Income, WI Administrative Data Core


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