Census Decline vs. IV-D Increase in Child Support Orders

June 17, 2016
Topics: 
Boy analyzing data

AUTHOR: ELAINE SORENSEN

Is the percent of custodial parents with a child support order going up or down?

It depends on the group of custodial parents that you examine. If you examine custodial parents receiving services from the child support program, the percent is going up. But if you examine all custodial parents, the percent is going down. In FY 2015, the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) reported that 86 percent of child support cases had an order, up from 59 percent in 1999, a 44 percent increase in 16 years, representing a great success for the child support program. In stark contrast, the Census Bureau reported that 49 percent of all custodial parents had a child support award in 2013, down from 59 percent in 1999, a 17 percent decline.

Percent of Custodial Parents with a Child Support Order

Line Graph: FY1999 - FY2015 percent of custodial parents with a child support order

Source: Child Support Program data are from OCSE, FY 2015 Preliminary Report and earlier Annual Reports to Congress. Census Bureau survey data are from “Custodial Mothers and Fathers and their Child Support: 2013.” by Timothy Grall (P60-255).

Why are trends in child support orders so different in Census and child support data?

Many reasons can be contributing to these disparate trends. Below, several explanations are discussed. This analysis is not intended to be an exhaustive review of the issue.

One reason the trends are different is because the two data sources cover different populations. The Census survey covers all custodial parents, not just those participating in the child support program. It is estimated that only 60 percent of the custodial parents in the Census survey are in the child support program1. In addition, the Census survey does not cover two groups that are in the child support program – custodians who are not biological parents and custodial parents with children over 20 years of age. Child support administrative data suggests that these two groups represent about 25 percent of the child support caseload. Given that the two data cover different populations, it is possible for the order establishment rate to increase among custodial parents in the child support program but decrease among all custodial parents.

Why have child support orders increased in the child support program?

The child support program has worked hard to increase the order establishment rate since FY 1999 when it became one of the five performance measures that Congress enacted to track the program’s progress and allocate incentive funding. The child support program has always worked hard to establish orders because it is an essential step in the process of collecting child support. But, it has placed greater emphasis on this measure since it became part of the formula for determining incentive funding. Incentive funding represented a sizable part of program funding, about 26 percent, for the child support program until FY 2008. Since then, incentive funding has declined as a result of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, representing 9 percent of total program funding in recent years. These data are audited by OCSE and thus the increase in the order establishment rate is not attributable to unreliable data.

Another reason child support orders have increased in the child support program is that the caseload has shifted away from families who are currently or formerly on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Since current and former TANF families are less likely to have a child support order than families never on TANF, this shift has contributed to the increase in order establishment rate. However, it explains less than 10 percent of the increase. Over 90 percent of the increase is due to the rise in order establishment rates within the three caseload types. Between FY 1999 and FY 2015, the order establishment rate increased by 49 percent, 41 percent, and 35 percent among current TANF, former TANF, and never TANF cases, respectively.

Why have child support orders decreased among all custodial parents?

One reason the order establishment rate among all custodial parents has been declining is because custodial parents are more likely to have children outside of marriage. In 2013, an estimated 45 percent of all custodial parents had their children outside of marriage, up from 36 percent in 19992. This shift affects the order establishment rate because most divorcing parents establish a child support order as part of the divorcing process. But when unmarried parents separate, they do not get a divorce and thus this routinized process of establishing a child support order does not occur for them.

Another reason child support orders have been decreasing is because an increasing percent of custodial parents believe that the noncustodial parent cannot afford to pay and thus are not pursuing a child support order. Between 1999 and 2013, the percent of custodial parents without an order who said that they did have an order because the noncustodial parent could not afford to pay increased from 24 percent to 36 percent. This trend is consistent with data from the Census Bureau that shows the median earnings of male workers has declined since 19993.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this blog and will join us in future blogs as we further examine these and other data relevant to the child support community. We look forward to hearing your views on this issue.


1 Lippold, K and E. Sorensen. Characteristics of Families Served by the Child Support (IV-D) Program: 2010 Census Survey Results. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, July 2013.

2 These figures are based on data from the detailed tables that accompany the Census reports titled “Custodial Mothers and Fathers and their Child Support” for 1999 and 2013. The percent of custodial parents with marital births is estimated by adding the following four marital statuses together: remarried, divorced, separated, and widowed. See: https://www.census.gov/topics/families/child-support.html

3 See Table P-41. Work Experience-Workers by Median Earnings and Sex.

Last Reviewed: March 28, 2019

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