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About 30% of parents who are owed child support payments get nothing, according to data from the Census Bureau.

One in five children in the US live in households that receive child support payments. In 2017[1], the 5.4 million parents who were owed child support payments received 62% of the amount they were supposed to get, on average.

The median amount received was $1,800, though 1.6 million, or 30% received no child support at all. About 46% of parents with child support agreements get all of what is owed to them.

Black children live with one biological parent at a disproportionate rate compared with other racial or ethnic groups. But those families are also less likely to receive child support payments.

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What is child support?

The child support program was established in the US in 1975 to ensure that children who live with only one of their biological parents are financially taken care of. Child support is meant to ensure the parent who does not live with the child or does not have custody of the child will financially contribute to the child’s upbringing. Child support payment amounts vary depending on the incomes of the two parents, among other factors.

How much child support do recipients actually receive?

Seventy percent of custodial parents received some or all of the child support payments they were supposed to get in 2017. About 46% received the full amount while the other 24% received part of that amount. The median amount that custodial parents were supposed to receive was $4,356 per year, but the median received was $1,800.

Some factors make it more likely for a custodial parent to get the full amount of child support owed. Parents who share custody are more likely to receive full child support payments. This is also true if the custodial parent is 40 years or older, or if they have a bachelor’s degree.

If a child is in contact with their noncustodial parent within the last year, the custodial parent is more likely to receive the full child support payment as well.

How are child support payment amounts decided?

In 2021, the child support program collected $32.7 billion, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). About 66% of this money was collected directly from the paychecks of parents obligated to provide child support. For custodial parents receiving cash assistance through programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, some states keep portions of the child support to “repay” the state. Child support orders are usually decided during divorce or custody legal proceedings. Parents can also apply for child support payments at any time through each state's independent application processes. About 50% of all custodial parents have child support agreements with the noncustodial parent.

After a parent has applied for child support, state child support agencies help parents find the other biological parent, establish paternity or maternity, decide what an appropriate child support payment would be, and enforce that the payments are being made.

How child support payments are calculated differs by state. Most states use an income-shares model, which considers both parents' income and the amount of time the child spends with each parent to determine payment amounts. Other states base payment amounts solely on the noncustodial parent’s income. There isn’t a state or federal government data set that collects or calculates the average child support payment by state.

Who benefits from child support payments?

In 2018, 14.7 million children lived in households receiving child support payments, about 1 in 5 children in the US, according to HHS. These children account for about two-thirds of the 21.9 million children under 21 who had a parent who lived outside of their household.

Children who live with only one biological parent are disproportionately likely to be living in poverty, according to Census data. Twenty four percent of custodial parent families lived in poverty compared with 14% of all families with children under 21 years old. According to HHS’ Office of Child Support Enforcement, child support lifts 750,000 people out of poverty each year. An analysis from the Census Bureau disagrees with HHS, saying parents who receive child support are not statistically more or less likely to be in poverty than those who do not.

Eighty percent of parents with primary custody, i.e. custodial parents, were mothers, though the rate of fathers with sole custody has been rising. While fathers were 16% of custodial parents in 1994, that rate rose to 20% in 2018. Custodial fathers are more likely to be divorced while custodial mothers are more likely to never have been married. Fifty-one percent of custodial mothers had child support orders or agreements compared with 41% of custodial fathers.

The number of parents owed child support has decreased since it peaked in 2003 when 7.3 million parents were supposed to receive child support. In 2017, this number dropped to 5.4 million, a decrease of 26%.

What is the racial breakdown of child support recipients?

In 2017, Black children were more than twice as likely as white children to live in a home with one custodial parent while the other parent lives outside the household, according to Census data. Forty-nine percent of Black children and about 23% of white children lived in such a household.

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While Black children are more likely to be living with one custodial parent than white, non-Hispanic children, they’re less likely to have a child support agreement.

Forty percent of Black custodial parents had child support orders compared with 57% of non-Hispanic white custodial parents.

One possible reason for the lower numbers of child support orders is the disproportionately higher rate of Black men in prisons. Over half of all incarcerated people are parents and about 33% of parents in prison were Black as of 2016. In many states, it is logistically infeasible to locate and establish the paternity of an incarcerated parent through the state child support system and it also can be challenging to start a child support order when the noncustodial parent has no ability to earn income. However, for the many parents who enter the criminal justice system with existing child support orders, their child support accrues in the form of debt. Incarcerated parents exit prison with an average of over $20,000 of child support debt.

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Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2017

The most recent data available from the Census Bureau is from 2017.