Only 1 in 4 Single-Mother Families Receive Child Support
According to 2019–2021 data in the KIDS COUNT® Data Center, just 24% of U.S. female-headed families reported receiving any amount of child support during the previous year. 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 2019–2021, single-mother families were least likely to receive child support in California (16%) and Tennessee (17%) and most likely to receive it in Utah and Idaho (both 42%). 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:
- Child Well-Being in Single-Parent Families (Blog, 2022)
- Understanding and Serving the Needs of Young Fathers of Color (Blog and Report, 2020)
- Approaches for Engaging Fathers in Child Support Programs (Fact Sheet, 2021)
- The Regular Receipt of Child Support: 2017 (Report, 2022)
- Office of Child Support Enforcement: Annual Report to Congress FY 2019 (Report, 2022)
- Foundation resources on fatherhood, child poverty and working families