Less than 1 in 4 Single-Mother Families Receive Child Support

Updated October 26, 2023 | 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.

Accord­ing to 20202022 data in the KIDS COUNT® Data Cen­ter, just 23% of U.S. female-head­ed fam­i­lies report­ed receiv­ing any amount of child sup­port dur­ing the pre­vi­ous year a decrease 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 — lives with sin­gle par­ents, 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.

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 school 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 are strug­gling to pay for their children’s basic needs while try­ing to main­tain eco­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty. Child sup­port agree­ments may be for­mal and court-ordered or may be an infor­mal agree­ment between par­ents. The exis­tence of any child sup­port arrange­ment, for­mal or infor­mal, is strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed with receiv­ing child sup­port. Accord­ing to a recent Cen­sus Bureau report, 57% of par­ents with a child sup­port agree­ment received some form of pay­ment, com­pared to 28% overall.

Receipt of Child Sup­port 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 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.

Non­cus­to­di­al Par­ents Need Sup­port, As Well, Espe­cial­ly Young Fathers

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

Young fathers, in par­tic­u­lar, are often unem­ployed or under­em­ployed and hit with child sup­port pay­ments that they can­not afford, accord­ing to Reach­ing Their Full Poten­tial: Strate­gies for Sup­port­ing Young Fathers, a recent report from the Cen­ter for Urban Fam­i­lies in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. These child sup­port oblig­a­tions can build up, even if a father is incar­cer­at­ed or unable to work, which can cre­ate an over­whelm­ing finan­cial bur­den. 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. 

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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