Panel Paper: Child Support Arrears and Fathers' Involvement With Children

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 4:30 PM
Mayfair Court (Westin Georgetown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kimberly J. Turner and Maureen Waller, Cornell University

Many fathers lack the ability to pay their court-ordered child support and what they owe accrues over time as arrears or personal debt.  Recent family-friendly child support policies aim to increase men’s willingness to support their children by increasing access to them.  Other policies have been targeted at increasing men’s compliance with child support orders with the hope that this will lead to more contact.  Prior work examining the link between child support payments and father-child contact has been somewhat inconclusive in regard to the strength and direction of this association.  Using cross-lagged models to examine the direction of causality, Nepomnyashchy (2007) finds that unmarried fathers who pay child support are somewhat more likely to see their children than those who do not.  However, the influence of child support arrears on the relationship between support and paternal contact is little explored.  


Using survey data, this paper examines how child support arrears directly influence the amount of time unmarried, non-resident fathers spend with their children through age 9.  It also examines whether having child support debt and the amount of arrears owed by fathers moderates the association child support and child contact.  Additionally, we examine in-depth, qualitative interviews with 40 fathers with child support arrears to explore potential mechanisms. 



The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study is a longitudinal study of urban births that occurred between 1998 and 2000 with an oversample of nonmarital births (3,710 of the 4,897 births were to unmarried parents).  Follow-up interviews were conducted at one, three, five, and nine years after the birth.  The analytical sample is comprised of 2,093 fathers who live apart from the focal child during the period of observation.  Arrears are represented both dichotomously (owed vs. not owed) and at market value.  Father involvement includes father-child contact measures (i.e., days saw in past month, engagement in child-centered activities, etc.) as well as shared responsibility with biological mother.   


Preliminary finding suggest that non-resident fathers who pay child support have more frequent contact with children, but that arrears moderate this relationship, reducing child support coefficients by approximately a third.  Owing arrears is also negatively associated with the time fathers spend with children; however, fathers with arrears are not more or less likely to share decision-making responsibilities.  Overall, we find that fathers with arrears are less involved with their children than their counterparts who pay child support and have no child support-related debt.



Child support programs have been the least effective for parents reporting low or no incomes and child support arrears (Sorensen, Souse, and Schaner 2007).  States are implementing new policies to create realistic child support orders and to limit the child support-related debt burdens of low-income parents.  Findings from our research suggest that reducing arrears could have positive implications for time fathers spend with children.