A collage of crumpled up bills with an illustration of a mother holding her young child.

First Person

Single Parents Can’t Survive On Unpaid Child Support

Laws are set up to allow non-custodial parents to owe billions in missed payments with little consequence, putting some single mothers and their children at risk of poverty.

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

Our life was unhinging and all I could do was wash dishes. I scrubbed cemented oatmeal off my children’s breakfast bowls. I did what so many single moms do and worked on the only little thing within my control.

It was late morning. My son and daughter were at school. I just got off the phone with the Department of Child Support Services (CSS), trying to decipher anything else I could do to help them find my ex-husband.

“If we don’t find him soon, they’ll close your case,” the case worker had said, “there’s a time limit.”

I hunched over the kitchen sink, soapy sponge in hand, my shoulders heaving, my vision blurred by tears. The electricity had been shut off that morning and I was tallying up how much longer it would be before we would be homeless. We’d already downsized about six months before, moving into a smaller apartment on a less desirable side of town. My business was suffering during the Great Recession, and I wasn’t getting any call backs on job applications, which made my ex’s complete cutoff of child support the final blow. I had already tried to get government assistance for that month’s rent, but they said we’d need to get evicted first in order to qualify. Even then there likely wouldn’t be funding.

But life kept going, the dishes still needed to be washed. The kids still grew. The bills still came. Though it’s often felt lonely, I’m by no means alone in my struggle to get my children’s father to contribute his court-ordered support. In America, noncustodial parents owe their children over $114.6 billion in child support debt.

Every day in America, over 70 percent of single mothers do not receive any child support at all. For those who receive payments, it’s often a fraction of what is owed. Nearly 37 percent of single-mom families live in poverty, a rate that is almost five times that of married couples.

And so we begin to see an epidemic of forgotten mothers and children. These moms—80 percent of custodial parents are mothers—are forced to make survival decisions each day, on top of everyday parenting decisions.

Unfortunately, our child support enforcement system perpetuates a cycle in which noncustodial parents are afforded the luxury of owing their children, rather than facing real life repercussions that arise from lack of support. It’s not just the families who suffer, but our communities, our economy, and our nation.

“The government does not do a great job of supporting single parents when child support is not paid – they are often extremely poor,” says Elizabeth Lower-Basch, Director, Income and Work Supports at CLASP. In fact, CNN estimates that deadbeat parents cost taxpayers $53 billion.

Rent, bills, and hungry bellies don’t go away. Children still need their parents’—both parents’—support. Being a statistic was not in my life plan. I was an honors student in high school, but I got married young, at 16, and had our first baby a week after my 18th birthday. I graduated high school, but college was something prioritized for my husband, not me. He worked his way up to a Ph.D., and by the time we separated in 2004, he was making six figures while I eked along without a degree, as a self-taught freelance designer, taking primary care of our young children. In 2008, after he lost custody due to drug abuse, he quit his six-figure job and stopped making payments on everything. Even life and health insurance for the kids. It didn’t matter that he was legally responsible because enforcement attempts by CSS were mediocre.

In California, where we live, over $17.5 billion in arrears is owed, overwhelmingly to single-mother families. Depending on the state, beleaguered and outdated support enforcement systems reportedly collect on somewhere between 8 to 65 percent of cases. However, this means only that they are collecting something—typically not the full amount owed.

After my children’s father took off to live like Timothy Leary in the woods of Northern California, CSS would occasionally locate him. He would throw a hundred or two our way to avoid jail. Meanwhile, his balance kept growing. The kids kept growing. The bills kept coming. Money, of course, is never just money. There’s a daily weight of poverty, the guilt of barely being able to provide shoes, the exhaustion of working two jobs but never catching up on bills, the embarrassment of your kids being the only ones who can’t go to the movies because you can’t afford it.

Without a degree, my good-paying career options were limited, but I worked hard to make ends meet, sometimes working two jobs, or a day job and a side business, plus freelance work, and squeezing in classes to improve my skill set because I couldn’t afford full-time schooling. I did what I had to do to give my children what they needed. Sometimes I failed. Sometimes we were fine without child support, but there were times we tripped over the poverty line and had to stay with family and friends—the only thing preventing us from living in our car. We were lucky, not everyone has family to take them in like we did.

I recently accompanied my friend Jen to a child support hearing. Her ex hadn’t paid in over a year and she had been working seven days a week to make up for it financially. During that time her ex bought a new vehicle, dined out often, and had a wine club membership, but claimed in court that he couldn’t afford child support.

That day, the court heard 22 cases in 3 hours. I heard similar stories: fathers who were in arrears requesting to have their child support amount reduced—even though they weren’t currently making payments. Most requests were granted. To be fair, there were two noncustodial parents who seemed genuinely concerned with supporting their children.

I recently spoke with family law attorney Nicholas Dowgul, from North Carolina who has represented both indigent noncustodial parents, as court-appointed counsel, and custodial parents who have hired him. In his experience, the most common reasons for parent’s refusal to pay child support were that they wanted the freedom to use their money how they saw fit and they assumed the custodial parent was going to spend any support frivolously.

One thing has become excruciatingly clear: if you’re a single mother (most custodial parents are) without the means to hire a lawyer and private investigator, you’re largely on your own. To be sure, family law facilitators and child support services are there to help, but they are woefully overloaded and don’t have the resources or time to enforce as well as they should. It’s really up to the custodial parent to take action.

“You have to be more evidence-based, less emotional,” says single mom Ayesha, of New Jersey. But staying unemotional can be difficult for low-income parents when the consequences of not receiving support can be the difference between making rent, or not. Even if you can afford to hire a lawyer, it doesn’t guarantee collection. After his ex-wife served over 18 months in jail, yet continued to refuse paying on the over $100,000 in child support she owes, Bruce, from Georgia told me, “In my case, after spending the money and getting the maximum judicial response, I was still unable to collect. You know, what hope does anybody else have?”

If I sweep all of these issues aside and focus on the core disparity, it would be this: a noncustodial parent can plead to the courts to reduce the support they give their children due to financial hardship—yet there is no court or legal route for custodial parents to do the same. Custodial parents cannot go to court and say “I’m not making enough,” and get a court order to pay their landlord less rent, or lower their car payment, or pay less for their children’s shoes.

A year or so after my ex stopped paying; he reappeared briefly to reduce his monthly liability in a telephonic court hearing. I was bedridden with the flu, but I was not allowed to call in like he was, because I lived locally. Though he hadn’t paid in months and had voluntarily quit his job, he was still granted the reduction, which he didn’t pay either. It then fell to our community to pick up my ex’s tab. Social services helped us with food stamps and MediCal, family helped the little they could, our friends and church pitched in during the holidays with a Thanksgiving meal and a Christmas tree.

While concern grows over non-custodial parents’ rights, there seems to be little interest in how a family continues to live with the absence of the other parent’s financial support. Nearly half of our nation’s poorest kids live in single-mom families, and lack of child support enforcement only makes it harder for them. And for disabled children, or children of color, the risk of poverty is even greater. Where is the concern for the lasting effects of preventable poverty on their lives?

Millions of children are unnecessarily missing out on opportunities for better education, less stress, and a better quality of life, which will affect them for generations to come. According to a 2009 report from the National Center for Children in Poverty, while those who grow up in poverty can break out of intergenerational cycle, it is less likely than common perception would suggest; and even when they are able to do so, their income is often only marginally higher than that of the previous generation.

Child support enforcement strategies are often ineffective or counterintuitive—like suspending a driver’s license, or jail time. Both of which can make it harder for a low-income noncustodial parent to work or find a job. But the answer is not to make it easier for parents to waylay their financial responsibility either. Perhaps programs that provide required work and training might help. Don’t have a job? We’ll give you one and take half the money to pay down your debt to your children.

Texas is one of only four states operating one such employment program which has led to participants paying support more often, more consistently, and in larger amounts. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’ve struggled to make ends meet at times. But the fact remains that we would not have if my ex had paid the $160,000+ in child support that he’s racked up over the past decade. But even at my lowest, I never had the option or inclination—unlike my ex—to just throw up my arms and say, “Sorry kids, didn’t make enough, we just won’t eat. Tell ya what, I’ll just owe you.” In fact more often than not, I hear stories of mothers like Becky, who was forced to sell some of her insulin on Craigslist to keep her child fed.

Our nation would save billions in social services if both parents supported their children. Yet despite its clear benefits to our society, adequate child support enforcement doesn’t exist in America. When you’re a single parent trying to keep food on the table and a roof over your heads, it’s hard to advocate for policy change. You barely have time to wash dishes.

Last fall I opened a letter from CSS, notifying me that our case would be closed because my ex-husband’s “residence, employment address, income and assets are unknown.” Meanwhile, the kids still grew. The bills still came. And I still did everything in my power to give them the life they deserve.

Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.

Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.

But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.

Support Dame Today

Become a member!