Men’s Rights Myth: Typical Child Support Payments Are Insanely High

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.

* * *

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.

This entry posted in Anti-feminists and their pals, Families structures, divorce, etc, Whatever. Bookmark the permalink. 

1,309 Responses to Men’s Rights Myth: Typical Child Support Payments Are Insanely High

  1. 1301
    Myca says:

    I do think that the system should be responsive to changes in circumstance (even voluntary ones), such that support is set as a percentage of income or something like that, but that isn’t the way it works, and the way it works is not a secret. If you jump out of the plane, then request a parachute, that’s on you.

    I think it’s tricky … I’d agree that the system ought to have some sort of provision for “I need to make less money for the next few years so that I make more money 10 years out,” (whether that’s going back to school or taking a lower-paying job with better advancement opportunities) but I’ve also seen SO MANY COUPLES where one partner says, “I’m the sole provider, and if you leave me, I’ll just quit my job. You and the kids won’t get any support. I’ll sleep on couches before I pay you a dime.”

    And … y’know … I’m comfortable with the system not catering to those people.


  2. 1302
    Robert says:

    The system need not cater to anyone, but it should also try to avoid privileging one set of personal decisions over another. If I’m allowed to decide to stop being a good SAHF and husband and spend the rest of my days getting drunk, then my ex-wife needs to be allowed to decide to stop being a high-powered attorney and instead teach kindergarden. And vice-versa. Taking a worse job to spite your ex is a dick move, granted.

    I do not think that we can successfully maintain and transmit a legal regime that has the prevention of dick moves as a justifying principle.

  3. 1303
    mythago says:

    “Dick move” here being a substitute for “deliberately gaming the system in order to avoid financial obligations to one’s children”.

  4. 1304
    Myca says:

    “Dick move” here being a substitute for “deliberately gaming the system in order to avoid financial obligations to one’s children”.

    Well, and, also using that ability to game the system to extort someone into continuing a romantic/sexual relationship they’d rather end.

    That’s abusive at a bare minimum, and prevention of that sort of abuse seems a legitimate goal of our family court system.


  5. 1305
    Sam says:

    So if the typical payment is $228/mo, and ‘median’ is ~330/mo, my normal state-mandated payment of $900+ is — exorbitant? Un-freaking-believable?

    So my ex-wife doesn’t have to work at all after having remarried 5 years ago, since I’m paying for her and her now-husband’s mortgage payment? And because I’m saddled with this payment, I sink further and further into debt, can’t maintain a lifestyle commensurate with my income, can’t afford to date women at my social level… Grrrrr…

    Please note, I don’t get the option of taking a lower paying job — I always have to pay $450 per paycheck, no matter how much money I make. Or, the Texas Rangers come looking for me? Really?

  6. 1306
    mythago says:

    Abigail Ivey @1297: My advice would be to TALK TO A LAWYER. Same advice I would give to Rick @1295. Yes, lawyers can be danged expensive, but there are other options you should try and exhaust first: JAG, if you’re military; Legal Aid; your county bar association’s pro bono programs and Modest Means programs and referrals, to name three avenues for the not-rolling-in-money.

    Myca @1304: Oh, indeed. I was more thinking of the way the delay in the legal system could otherwise be used to slingshot low support payments; I quit my job to become a vers libre poet just long enough for the court to say “okay, your income is nigh-zero”, then I go get a high-paying job again knowing that my ex a) has to find out about it and b) has to petition the court for support based on a change in my income, at which point I can presumably repeat the process is necessary. “Imputed income” prevents me from playing that game.

  7. 1307
    Isolde says:

    Mythago, usually if you want to be a high-income person, you have to work up to it. It would be very difficult in real life to quit a high-earning occupation for a while to fool a court, then earn bundles of money again after the coast is clear.

    You can’t really quit your job as CEO of McDonald’s, diddle around for 6 months while you’re fooling the court, then get your CEO job back. Same with being a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief.

  8. 1308
    Robert says:

    I can see why there is suspicion and dislike of people who seem to be, or who actually are, avoiding their financial responsibility towards their children.

    The problem is, there is really not a good way (that I can see, anyway) to accurately diagnose those behaviors from outside. I can legitimately realize that teaching kindergarden is what I’ve always yearned to do so I quit my high-powered Internet trolling consulting business; I can also do that to screw over my ex. How are you going to tell the difference? Unless I’m going on Facebook to gloat, I don’t think you can.

    And the custodial parent is, within very wide boundaries, permitted to do pretty much whatever they want in terms of career-life balance. If my ex decides that being a mostly full-time SAHM mom just isn’t fulfilling her anymore, so she goes out and gets a 60 hour a week job and my kid’s new primary caretaker is after school TV, then short of outright neglect there is no court or bureaucracy that’s going to lock her into earlier choices (or impositions) about parenting. There does not seem to be a compelling argument for locking people into earlier choices about economic productivity either. Rather, there are many such arguments, but it is extremely difficult to justify them *only* in the case of non-custodial parents. We don’t compel anyone else in society to earn a certain wage.

  9. 1309
    Mythago says:

    Robert, we don’t compel anyone in society to “earn a certain wage” in child support, either. If I have a giant pot of money sitting in my bank account, I can pay child support out of that even if I spent my days sitting around playing Eve Online rather than earning a wage. As long as I meet my obligations, the fact that my money is coming out of something other than a paycheck is irrelevant.

    As far as career-life balance, the non-custodial parent has similar rights. If I choose to spend my every-other-weekend dumping my kids on the pool boy babysitter while I go play the slots, or stick the kids in front of the Internet, I’m allowed to do that.

    “Imputed income” isn’t limited to family law, or to child support specifically. Surely you’d agree that if I quit my job to go do menial labor among the poor and then immediately filed for divorce, it would be unfair for a court to look at my now-income and say “Gosh, Mr. Mythago, it looks like you might owe the poor thing spousal support”, rather than taking a look at whether I should be treated as an income-earning professional for such purposes.

    Can we tell if a parent is being sinister rather than entrepreneurial? “We can’t read minds” is a dumb argument against a lot of laws (get rid of degrees of murder!), but at least in my state, it’s apparently the job of the other person – the one claiming that I should be making more than minimum wage – to prove that I have both the ability and opportunity to make more money.

    Isolde @1307, it’s not that difficult to game the system. La Lubu, who sadly doesn’t comment much here anymore, is in the skilled trades, and has talked about many co-workers who get paid under the table or work ‘off the books’ so that their income doesn’t show up anywhere a court can easily see it. As for being a high-income person, speaking here as somebody who’s in one of those professions, I find it hard to believe that it isn’t easier for a high-income person to move between jobs and game the system, with things like deferred compensation and sabbaticals and “of counsel” arrangements; when you have money, you can build up an asset cushion that isn’t available to the minimum-wage worker.