I frequently read and hear anecdotes about non-custodial parents (usually fathers) being ordered to pay outrageously high child support – amounts that are impossible for anyone with an ordinary income to afford. No doubt some of these anecdotes are exaggerated, but I’m convinced that some are not. Unaffordable child support payments don’t benefit anyone – not even the children – and should not be imposed. Furthermore, some measures to help non-custodial parents pay child support – such as a tax deduction of some sort – would be reasonable.
However, some men’s rights activists (MRAs) use rhetoric which suggests that child support payments are often or typically outrageously high, or that child support has made single motherhood a profitable situation for women. Neither claim is true.
According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report (pdf link), the median child support payment in the U.S. is $280 a month. The average child support payment is a little higher – $350 a month. That’s a noticeable amount – similar in scope to payments on a new car – but it’s hardly the crushing, slavery-like burden some MRAs seem to describe child support as.
Although the Census Bureau report doesn’t provide detailed income breakdowns, what information it has indicates that child support amounts are sensitive to income. For instance, among fathers who are below the poverty line, the median child support payment is $125 a month, compared to a median of $300 a month for those above the poverty line.
So despite the terrible anecdotes that we hear (and if you think about it, it’s those who are mistreated by the system who are going to talk about their experiences the most often), the evidence shows that typical child support payments are not ridiculously high. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be concerned about those outliers who are being ordered to pay unaffordable amounts of child support; however, I think the weight of the evidence suggests that while the system may need some tweaking, on the whole it’s not broken.
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So the typical child support payment is $280 a month – put another way, half of custodial parents who receive child support get $280 a month or less. How does that compare to the costs of raising a child?
Again, the federal government compiles some good statistics on this (pdf link). For a single parent with an income of about $17,500, raising a single child for 17 years will cost about $10,125 a year, or $840 a month.
Of course, a single parent who earns $17,500 a year is pretty poor. What about single parents who aren’t poor? For better-off single parents – those earning an average of $65,000 a year – raising a single child for 17 years will cost almost $21,600 a year, or a little over $1,800 a month.
All told, the typical child support payment in the USA covers much less than half the expense of raising a child. Custodial parents – usually mothers – are taking on not only the majority of the work involved in childrearing, and the majority of the opportunity costs – they’re taking on the majority of the cash expenses, as well.
Therefore, I’d support a two-tiered reform to child support. Child support payments should be made more sensitive to individual situations, so that noncustodial parents are not saddled with irrational and impossible-to-pay child support orders, as has happened in some outlier cases. At the same time, typical child support payments are simply too low, compared to the cost of raising a child; therefore, most non-custodial parents should have their child support obligations increased. (This will also have the side benefit of reducing unwed motherhood.)
NOTE FOR COMMENTS: Please don’t post about how you have an income of $500 a month and the judge ordered you to pay $2000 a month in child support to your ungrateful lazy ex-spouse who spends all the child support money on dresses she can wear to the track and she earns more than you do anyway and the judge won’t even reply to your motions. Unless I know both you and your ex-spouse, and can verify for myself that she’d tell me the same version of events that you’re telling me, I don’t think anecdotal evidence of that sort is more useful than the federal data.