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Child Support, Child Placement, Repartnering, and Divorced Mothers’ Objective and Subjective Economic Well-Being: Insights from Combining Survey and Administrative Data

Decades of research have documented economic challenges for women following divorce. Child support has long been viewed as at least a partial remedy, and increased earnings and repartnering have also emerged as important strategies in mothers’ economic recovery. In Wisconsin, the growth of shared placement has also received increasing attention as a factor that could either strengthen or weaken economic well-being. This report examines how divorced mothers in Wisconsin are faring 6 to 10 years after divorce across a range of objective and subjective measures of economic well-being, paying particular attention to the role of child support, placement arrangements, and repartnering.

Data are from the 2020 Wisconsin Parents Survey, which includes parents in the Wisconsin Court Record Database who began divorce proceedings during 2009–10 and 2013, supplemented with administrative data from the Wisconsin Administrative Data Core (WADC). The survey sample was limited to parents with sole-mother or shared placement and a child age six or under at the time of divorce. We examine mothers’ economic well-being based on objective and subjective measures from the survey; the latter include mothers’ self-described capacity to meet their food needs, cover an emergency expense, and keep up with bills, as well as their overall financial satisfaction. We describe the contribution of child support to mothers’ total income and how much that support reduces pre-support poverty; describe the extent to which mothers have orders in place and receive the support they are owed; and estimate multivariate models to assess whether child support is associated with subjective financial well-being. Across analyses, we also focus on the role of placement and current marital status.

We find that divorced mothers are worse off economically than Wisconsin households with children overall. However, the majority of mothers describe their financial situation as better than prior to their divorce. Child support is important to both objective and subjective measures of financial well-being. It represents 10.5% of mothers’ income on average, and reduces estimated poverty rates by 3.3 percentage points, or by about one-quarter. These impacts are considerably larger for mothers who receive at least some support, mothers with sole placement, and mothers who have not remarried. Receiving more support is associated with lower risk of food hardships and capacity to handle an emergency expense, while getting most or all of what one is owed, as distinct from the amount, appears beneficial in keeping up with routine expenses. Mothers receive the large majority of support they are owed, though one-third of mothers—heavily concentrated among those with shared placement—do not have a support order. Mothers with shared placement consistently fare better than those with sole placement on objective and subjective measures; this may reflect, at least in part, their stronger economic footing entering into divorce. Finally, remarried mothers fare strikingly better than unmarried mothers across objective and subjective measures, and the amount of earnings from a new spouse is as or more important than mothers’ own earnings as a predictor of subjective well-being across measures.

Our findings affirm the relevance of child support to divorced mothers’ long-term economic well-being; overall high child support compliance many years after divorce also affirms the effectiveness of the child support system in collecting support that is owed. The relatively large share of shared placement mothers without an order suggests that additional attention to these kinds of cases may be warranted, though lack of an order may be consistent with shared placement guidelines. An analysis of economic circumstances of shared placement mothers and fathers, including the role of child support, could strengthen our understanding of the role of child support in the context of changing placement norms.


Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Custody & Placement, Economic Support, Family Income, Financial Security, Orders & Payments, WI Administrative Data Core


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