Millions of parents are awarded child support every year, but getting it is another story. Less than half of eligible parents received all of the child support they were due in 2011, according to a newly released report based on the Current Population Survey. Roughly a quarter got none.
Most parents were granted support through formal legal agreements established by the courts or other government entities. Yet a shrinking share of parents said they asked the government for help collecting child support.
Between 1994 and 2012, the number of parents who sought such help fell by roughly a quarter, even though Census Bureau data show relatively little change in the number of parents getting all the money they were owed. Scholars and advocates believe some parents have given up trying.
"Increasingly, for the poorest single women, it's harder to access the system," said Malcolm Smith, an extension professor at the University of New Hampshire. Budget cuts have strained government resources, Smith said. On top of that, "they don't know how this complex system works."
On the other hand, he said, fewer parents might be asking the government to intervene because they are working with their former partners to find their own solutions.
More than half of custodial parents said they received some kind of help other than cash, such as clothes or groceries, from the other parent.
Roughly one out of nine parents who said they were supposed to get financial support had an informal arrangement with the other parent, often because that other parent could not afford regular payments.
On average, parents were supposed to get roughly $500 a month in support, either under legal awards or informal agreements. For mothers and fathers who received all that they were owed, such payments were nearly a fifth of their average annual income.
The shortfall hit some families harder than others: Parents who were younger and less educated were less likely to get all the child support they were owed, the report found.
If their child had no contact with the other parent, their chances were especially slim, with less than 31 percent collecting all the money they were due.
The persistent underpayment underscores the need for reform, said Joe Jones, CEO of the Center for Urban Families, a Baltimore advocacy group and service provider.
He praised a program in Maryland that relieves some parents' debt to the state if they start paying child support consistently. His group also backed a Maryland pilot program, which is still in the works, that would help couples gain economic stability.
"That is the way you prevent these guys from falling behind," Jones said.
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