Fair support?

After divorce, children who live with mom do worse economically

by Mark DiPietro

Children of divorce who live with their mothers are invariably worse off economically than their fathers, according to new research by Puget Sound Professor of Economics Kate Stirling. Contrary to the claims of “fathers’ rights” movements across the U.S., custodial mothers are not enjoying a more comfortable lifestyle at the expense of hefty child support payments from their children’s fathers.

Stirling studied 4,329 child-support cases throughout Washington state between October 2000 and February 2001. She assessed economic well-being utilizing a standard measure of household income relative to household needs.

“Both parents experience a drop in economic well-being, whether they have custody or not,” says Stirling. “That’s to be expected because you’re stretching the resources of one family to meet the needs of two households. But the much harder economic hit is taken by the household of the custodial mother and children, who represent the vast majority of the cases.”

The results showed that when a mother is the custodial parent, she and the children suffered an average 42 percent drop in well-being, compared to noncustodial fathers who experienced a 14 percent decline.

Conversely, when the father had custody of the children (which occurs only in a small number of the cases), he and the children enjoyed a level of economic well-being almost twice that of the noncustodial mothers.

“There’s pressure in all the states from fathers’ rights groups to reduce payments, but there is no evidence that state guidelines for child support should be lowered,” Stirling says. “In fact, if the policy objective is to ensure that the division of family resources does not harm the children, then child support payments could be increased.”

Under federal legislation in 1988, all states were required to enact a consistent schedule of child support payments based upon income and number of children. Stirling’s study of child support orders in Washington state is part of a periodic review of statewide child support awards, which every state is required to conduct under federal law.