Child Support Statistics in the United States

Updated June 29, 2024 | Posted March 16, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A mother stands side by side with her teenage son. Both are smiling, and they each have an arm around the other.

What is Child Support?

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, a par­ent pays child sup­port fol­low­ing a divorce or a sep­a­ra­tion that involves minor chil­dren (though, in some states, this sup­port can be required until a child turns 21). This pay­ment is usu­al­ly ongo­ing and intend­ed to help cov­er the costs asso­ci­at­ed with child rearing.

The oblig­a­tion to pay child sup­port may be for­mal­ly and legal­ly set by the court sys­tem or it may be infor­mal­ly set, such as through a ver­bal agree­ment between par­ents. Often­times, the par­ent who spends less time with their child or chil­dren pays sup­port to the par­ent who is pri­ma­ry caregiver. 

The U.S. Cen­sus Bureau released a Novem­ber 2023 report that shares the lat­est data on child sup­port in the Unit­ed States. It reports that:

  • 4.1 mil­lion par­ents received child sup­port in the form of cash pay­ments in 2021
  • About 86% of par­ents who received cash child sup­port pay­ments had a legal or infor­mal agree­ment in place with the child’s oth­er parent.
  • Nation­wide, $20.2 bil­lion in cash child sup­port pay­ments were received by par­ents in 2021, with the aver­age month­ly pay­ment total­ing $441.
  • 2.7 mil­lion cus­to­di­al par­ents received non-cash sup­port in the form of gro­ceries, clothes, dia­pers as well as reim­burse­ments for med­ical expens­es, child care and more.

Def­i­n­i­tion note: The term cus­to­di­al par­ent refers to a par­ent who lives with and cares for their minor chil­dren most of the time (also known as hav­ing sole or pri­ma­ry cus­tody). A non­cus­to­di­al par­ent lives else­where and gen­er­al­ly spends less time with their children.

Why Is Child Sup­port Important?

Sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies, espe­cial­ly sin­gle-mom house­holds, are more like­ly to live in pover­ty com­pared to mar­ried-par­ent house­holds. For chil­dren, the con­se­quences of pover­ty are pro­found. A large body of research shows that kids who grow up poor are more like­ly to have:

  • phys­i­cal, men­tal and behav­ioral health problems, 
  • dis­rupt­ed brain development, 
  • poor aca­d­e­m­ic performance, 
  • con­tact with the child wel­fare and jus­tice systems, 
  • employ­ment chal­lenges in adulthood,
  • and more.

Child sup­port can be a crit­i­cal source of income for sin­gle par­ents who may be strug­gling to pay for their children’s basic needs while also pur­su­ing eco­nom­ic stability.

Child Sup­port Agree­ment Sta­tis­tics in the Unit­ed States

There are two basic types of child sup­port agree­ments in child cus­tody arrange­ments: 1. for­mal, legal­ly bind­ing agree­ments; and 2. infor­mal, vol­un­tary agreements. 

  • A for­mal agree­ment is an offi­cial legal order gen­er­at­ed by a court or anoth­er gov­ern­ment entity.
  • An infor­mal agree­ment is any writ­ten or ver­bal under­stand­ing between par­ents that has nev­er been approved or ordered by a court or a gov­ern­ment agency. It is gen­er­al­ly not legal­ly binding.

The Cen­sus Bureau shared detailed data on child sup­port agree­ments in a May 2020 report. It notes that:

  • Near­ly half of the 12.9 mil­lion cus­to­di­al par­ents nation­wide had a court order, child sup­port award or some oth­er type of agree­ment in place to receive finan­cial sup­port from the non­cus­to­di­al parent(s) in 2018.
  • Of the 6.4 mil­lion cus­to­di­al par­ents with child sup­port agree­ments, 88% report­ed hav­ing legal orders while the remain­ing 12% per­cent report­ed hav­ing infor­mal agreements.
  • 7.1 mil­lion cus­to­di­al par­ents lacked a legal child sup­port agree­ment of any type in 2018.
  • Among cus­to­di­al par­ents with­out a legal agree­ment in place, the top three rea­sons that they gave for for­go­ing a legal con­tract were: 1. They did­n’t feel it was nec­es­sary (39%); 2. The oth­er par­ent pro­vid­ed what he or she could for sup­port (38%); and 3. They did not think the oth­er par­ent could afford to pay child sup­port (30%).
  • As of 2018: Near­ly 21% of cus­to­di­al par­ents had con­tact­ed the gov­ern­ment for assis­tance. This out­reach includ­ed con­tact with child sup­port enforce­ment offices, state depart­ment of social ser­vices, or oth­er wel­fare or TANF offices for child sup­port-relat­ed assistance.

A sep­a­rate Cen­sus Bureau report, released in 2021, notes that receiv­ing a child sup­port pay­ment is strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed with hav­ing a child sup­port agree­ment in place. Over half (57%) of par­ents with agree­ments received pay­ments in 2017.

Child Care Sup­port for Sin­gle Mothers

Nation­wide, cus­to­di­al moth­ers are more like­ly to have a child sup­port order or agree­ment in place than are cus­to­di­al fathers, accord­ing to the Cen­sus Bureau. 

Yet, 20202022 data in the KIDS COUNT® Data Cen­ter reveal that just 23% of U.S. female-head­ed fam­i­lies report­ed receiv­ing any amount of child support dur­ing the pre­vi­ous year (down from 26% in 20182020). Female-head­ed fam­i­lies refer to unmar­ried women liv­ing with one or more of their own chil­dren under age 18, which may include stepchil­dren and adopt­ed children.

One in three kids — near­ly 24 mil­lion kids total — lives with a sin­gle par­ent, most­ly sin­gle moms. In fact, accord­ing to 2022 Cen­sus Bureau data, of the 10.9 mil­lion one-par­ent fam­i­lies with chil­dren under age 18, 80% were head­ed by a moth­er. This makes women the more fre­quent cus­to­di­al par­ent and the major­i­ty of those who need child support.

Receipt of Child Sup­port for Sin­gle Moth­ers Varies Wide­ly at the State Level

In 20202022, sin­gle-moth­er fam­i­lies were least like­ly to receive child sup­port in Ten­nessee (12%) and Louisiana (13%) and most like­ly to receive child sup­port it in Ida­ho (35%), Utah and New Hamp­shire (both 34%). In all years avail­able in the KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter, Ida­ho con­sis­tent­ly ranks first in the share of female-head­ed fam­i­lies receiv­ing child support.

Child Sup­port Sta­tis­tics By Gender

In 2020, the Cen­sus Bureau released its lat­est Cus­to­di­al Moth­ers and Fathers and Their Child Sup­port report. This doc­u­ment notes that:

  • Cus­to­di­al moth­ers and cus­to­di­al fathers were sim­i­lar­ly like­ly to receive full child sup­port pay­ments (46% ver­sus 43%).
  • Cus­to­di­al moth­ers were more like­ly to have a child sup­port order or agree­ment in place (51% ver­sus 41% for cus­to­di­al fathers).
  • Cus­to­di­al fathers were more like­ly to nev­er receive a sin­gle child sup­port pay­ment in 2017 (38% ver­sus 29% for cus­to­di­al mothers).
  • Cus­to­di­al fathers were also more like­ly to receive non-cash sup­port (65% ver­sus 56% for cus­to­di­al mothers).

Data on Cus­to­di­al Par­ents by Gender

The Cen­sus Bureau’s 2020 report also pro­vides a sharp­er look at the dif­fer­ences between cus­to­di­al-moth­er fam­i­lies and cus­to­di­al-father fam­i­lies. It shares that:

  • In 2018, there were 12.9 mil­lion cus­to­di­al par­ents nation­wide; 80% were moth­ers and 20% were fathers.
  • Cus­to­di­al-moth­er fam­i­lies were more like­ly to live in pover­ty (27% ver­sus 11% for cus­to­di­al-father families).
  • Cus­to­di­al fathers were more like­ly to be employed full time year round (74% ver­sus 51% of cus­to­di­al mothers).
  • Cus­to­di­al fathers were less like­ly to be unem­ployed (9% ver­sus 22% for cus­to­di­al mothers).
  • Cus­to­di­al moth­ers are more like­ly to par­tic­i­pate in at least one pub­lic assis­tance pro­gram (45% ver­sus 26% for cus­to­di­al fathers).

Child Sup­port Sta­tis­tics By Race and Ethnicity

Child sup­port agree­ments and pay­ments vary accord­ing to the race and eth­nic­i­ty of the cus­to­di­al par­ents. For exam­ple, as report­ed by the Cen­sus Bureau in a 2020 report: 

  • Non-His­pan­ic white cus­to­di­al par­ents were more like­ly than Black cus­to­di­al par­ents to have a child sup­port agree­ment in place (57% ver­sus 40%).
  • Non-His­pan­ic white cus­to­di­al par­ents received high­er annu­al sup­port, on aver­age, than Black cus­to­di­al par­ents ($3,656 ver­sus $2,577 annually).
  • Non-His­pan­ic white cus­to­di­al par­ents received a greater share of their expect­ed pay­ments rel­a­tive to Black cus­to­di­al par­ents (65% ver­sus 53%).

How like­ly chil­dren are to live with a cus­to­di­al-par­ent fam­i­lies also varies by race and eth­nic­i­ty. For exam­ple: Essen­tial­ly half (49%) of all Black chil­dren live in fam­i­lies with a cus­to­di­al par­ent. This rate drops sig­nif­i­cant­ly for white chil­dren (23%) and even low­er for chil­dren of oth­er races (14%), such as Amer­i­can Indi­an, Alas­ka Native, Asian or Native Hawai­ian and Oth­er Pacif­ic Islander chil­dren. Near­ly 29% of His­pan­ic chil­dren, who can be of any race, lived in cus­to­di­al-par­ent fam­i­lies in 2018

Finan­cial Assis­tance for Fathers Pay­ing Child Support

While child sup­port pay­ments can lift chil­dren out of pover­ty and increase par­ent-child engage­ment, many non­cus­to­di­al par­ents strug­gle to pro­vide these pay­ments, which can rep­re­sent a sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of their income.

Young fathers, in par­tic­u­lar, are more like­ly to be unem­ployed or under­em­ployed and have child sup­port oblig­a­tions that they can­not afford, accord­ing to Reach­ing Their Full Poten­tial, a report from the Cen­ter for Urban Fam­i­lies in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

Such oblig­a­tions can build up, includ­ing when a father is incar­cer­at­ed or unable to work, and quick­ly spi­ral into an over­whelm­ing finan­cial bur­den. For­tu­nate­ly, there is finan­cial assis­tance for fathers pay­ing child support.

Among the solu­tions, fathers can be con­nect­ed to cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate father­hood pro­grams with work­force-train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties, legal ser­vices, help access­ing finan­cial safe­ty net ben­e­fits and oth­er sup­ports. Learn more about finan­cial assis­tance for fathers pay­ing child sup­port.

It is worth not­ing that some non­cus­to­di­al par­ents help pro­vide for their chil­dren out­side of child sup­port pay­ments, too, such as pro­vid­ing clothes, food, direct pay­ments for health care expens­es and oth­er support.

Learn More About Child Sup­port and Sin­gle-Par­ent Families

See all data on fam­i­ly eco­nom­ic well-being in the KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter, as well as the fol­low­ing selec­tion of Foun­da­tion and exter­nal resources:

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