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COVID-19, Child Support, and the Income Packages of Custodial Parents

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused both public health and economic crises in the United States and worldwide. At the same time, the safety net experienced an unprecedented expansion. This report examines how separated families were impacted by these trends by answering the following questions. In 2020, during the COVID-pandemic: (1) How did noncustodial parents’ earnings, UI benefits, and tax benefits change? (2) How did noncustodial parents’ child support outcomes change? (3) How did custodial mothers’ income sources, total income, and rate of poverty change? (4) Did these changes differ by parents’ race and ethnicity and nativity?

We used data from the Wisconsin Administrative Data Core and a cohort comparison approach to answer these questions. The pandemic or treatment cohort included noncustodial parents (NCPs, N=5,503) and custodial mothers (CMs, N=17,384) with a non-marital birth in 2018. We examined their outcomes in the months preceding and immediately following the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. We compared the outcomes of this treatment cohort to those of a comparison cohort of parents with a non-marital birth in 2017 (N=6,158 NCPs; N=18,303 CMs). We used regression models to adjust for parent characteristics that might differ across cohorts and bias our estimates.

NCPs experienced significant declines in earnings during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, expansions in the social safety net—particularly Unemployment Insurance (UI) and estimated tax benefits—mitigated the pandemic’s negative effects on NCPs’ ability to pay child support: In 2020, NCPs were more likely to pay any child support and the total amount of child support payments was higher than in the comparison cohort. That compliance also declined in 2020 suggests that although more NCPs were able to pay some amount of child support, fewer NCPs were able to pay 90% or more of their ordered amount. On average, NCPs accumulated less arrears during the first year of the pandemic. Although CMs also experienced substantial declines in earnings in 2020, these declines were more than compensated by increases in child support payments and safety net benefits. CMs were slightly more likely to receive any child support (among those with an order) and received a higher total amount of payments. CMs also received higher amounts of safety net benefits, particularly from the UI and SNAP programs and in estimated tax benefits. In turn, higher child support and safety net benefit amounts translated to higher total personal income and lower poverty rates. Among both CMs and NCPs, we found evidence that the safety net provided higher levels of benefits to Black parents than White and Hispanic parents and thus, was more effective at bolstering NCPs’ child support payments and CMs’ personal income. We found little evidence of differences by nativity.

Our findings point to the important role of the safety net—especially expansions in the UI program and economic impact payments—in mitigating declines in NCPs’ ability to pay child support and CMs’ income during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Making the expansions in UI eligibility permanent would likely help NCPs who are otherwise ineligible for UI due to unstable and low levels of employment to be able to make more and higher levels of payments. Additional income supports for custodial mothers who were out of the labor force and disconnected from or ineligible for safety net benefits, like UI, are likely needed for this particularly economically vulnerable group.


Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Economic Support, Family Income, Related Social Policies, Social Insurance Programs, WI Administrative Data Core


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