Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Changing Policy, Changing Practice: Mothers' Incomes and Child Support Orders

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Changing Policy, Changing Practice: Mothers' Incomes and Child Support Orders

Article excerpt

With the increasing numbers of children affected by divorce and economic vulnerability after divorce, child support is a critical concern of national policymakers. The efforts to increase child support have included a shift to numerical guidelines for the amount of child support orders. Guidelines generally reflect an income-sharing philosophy, in which support is expected of all

nonresident parents, regardless of residentparent resources. We examine Wisconsin divorce cases before and after income-sharing guidelines were implemented and find that the negative impact of the mother's income on the size of child support orders has fallen substantially. A multivariate analysis is critical to this assessment; it permits us to distinguish the impact of mothers' and fathers ' incomes on order amounts.

The level of child support orders is a critical concern of national policymakers because of the increasing numbers of children affected by divorce and because of a growing awareness that children who live with their mother when their parents separate or divorce typically see large drops in their economic well-being (e.g., Smock, 1994). In an attempt to increase the level of child support, several policies have been changed in the last decade. One of these changes was a shift from a case-by-case determination of the level of child support orders to the use of a specific formula that systematically relates parents' incomes to the level of child support ordered (Garfinkel & Melli, 1990). Another change was a shift from a costoriented philosophy, in which child support was ordered only when needed because of a custodial parent's limited income, to an income-sharing philosophy in which child support is expected of all nonresident parents.

If these changes lead to a greater prevalence of child support orders or higher levels of support, there would be substantial implications for the economic well-being of resident parents and their children. Yet limited systematic empirical research has been conducted on the effect of specific numerical standards, generally referred to as child support guidelines, on the level of child support orders. In this article we examine the effect of guidelines on the level of child support orders in Wisconsin by comparing orders from the early 1980s (before numerical guidelines were required) with those of the latter 1980s (after guidelines were supposed to be used). We examine the correlates of the level of orders, and we focus particularly on the effect of mothers' incomes. We do this because the guideline that Wisconsin selected sets orders based on only the number of children and the income of the nonresident parent and ignores the income of the resident parent. This approach is contrary to both the previous policy (the cost-oriented approach) and to some public opinion data (e.g., Corbett, Garfinkel, & Schaeffer, 1988; Schaeffer, 1990). Thus, if orders set after the guidelines really are unrelated to the mother's income, this reflects an overturning of prior practice in a relatively short time, a notable (and perhaps unusual) accomplishment of social policy. A second reason why we are interested in the effect of the mothers' incomes is because Robins (1992) concluded that increases in mothers' earnings were the most important cause of declines in the levels of child support orders during the 1980s. Third, the relationship between mothers' incomes and orders has implications for the distribution of income among divorced parents. Finally, Seltzer (1994) has suggested that rising divorce rates have contributed to increasing ambiguity about what constitutes a family and who has the responsibility to provide for children. She argues that "regardless of their biological ties to children. . . when marriages dissolve, men disengage from these children" (1994, p. 237). In this context, income-sharing guidelines are particularly important because they require nonresident fathers to support their children irrespective of the mothers' resources. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.