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Divorce and non-marital childbearing have become commonplace and have dramatically altered children's lives. It can no longer be assumed that most children will spend their entire childhoods living with both parents. To the contrary, approximately half will live in single parent homes at some point before they turn age 18. Unfortunately, a common pattern is for the non-residential parent to become increasingly detached over time, paying minimal or no child support and visiting infrequently if at all. The costs to the children involved and to society at large of this disengagement are far from trivial. Many non-custodial parents do not pay all the child support they owe. Many others have no obligation to pay support. Nonpayment of support forces some families below the poverty level and onto government welfare programs. For others, it means a reduced standard of living and an uncertain future. The costs to children are seen in an increased likelihood of dropping out of school and increased, social, emotional, psychological, and behavioral problems. Not all children are affected and some that are overcome their difficulties in a few years, but others experience long-term setbacks.

The connections between custody arrangements, payment of child support, parental involvement, and child well-being are still not well-understood. Many of the studies on which policy is being made are based on small, unrepresentative samples or on the experiences of divorcing couples in particular states. These studies may not reflect the experience of most custodial parents and their children. If the assumptions about the positive influence of joint custody, for example, or links between payment of child support and visitation are wrong, then the outcomes for families and children may not be to their benefit after all. Although not based on experimental designs, national survey data can be used to cast more light on the issues surrounding visitation, custody, child support, and child well-being and provide policymakers with a more solid base from which to proceed.

The aim of this project was to improve understanding of the relationship between non-custodial parent involvement, children's well-being, child support, and custody arrangements. Two approaches were used. Analyses of data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) were used to provide national estimates of persons living in different custody arrangements, and to examine the connections between custody arrangements, child support payments, parental involvement, and children's well-being in both the divorced and never-married populations. In addition, a review of recent literature was conducted and gaps in the research were noted. The findings of the review were used to guide the SIPP analyses. Also, as part of the project, a limited set of articles was annotated and a bibliography of selected papers on custody, visitation, and child well-being was created. The analyses of SIPP are contained in Volume I of this report. The literature review, selected annotated articles, and the extended bibliography are contained in Volume II. In addition, supplementary tables based on the SIPP were produced. These tables show the demographic characteristics, economic status, and living conditions of custodial parents, and selected measures of children's well-being by the existence of a child support award and whether child support was received, whether the agreement was voluntary or court-ordered, and the type of arrangement. Information on demographic background, the economic status, and the living conditions of the custodial parent and selected measures of child well-being are also shown by the amount of visitation with the non-resident parent. These tables were prepared for all custodial parents, for female custodial parents, for male custodial parents, and for divorced female custodial parents. The sample size for male custodial parents is small in some cells of the tables, so caution should be used in drawing inferences from these tables.


The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) is based on a national probability sample of the U.S. civilian, non-institutionalized population. It is funded and conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The SIPP is a major source of information about the demographic and economic situation of persons and families in the United States. The SIPP is one of two national surveys containing extensive amounts of child support information. The other survey is the Current Population Survey.

There are three reasons why SIPP was uniquely suited to examine the relationship of child support, child custody, and child well-being: (1) detailed programmatic information; (2) longitudinal nature of the data, and (3) a child support module with questions on award, payment, custody, visitation, and child well-being. There are a variety of questions that can be used to assess the economic well-being of such children and, to a lesser extent, their social well-being. SIPP also contains topical modules which ask about consumer durables owned by each household, the living conditions of households, and the ability of households to meet basic needs. These modules were used to characterize the circumstances in which children are growing up. In addition, the SIPP contains information about the health of persons aged 15 and older.

The analyses relied on a variety of methods. Frequencies and crosstabulations were used to develop profiles of custodial parents with different child support characteristics, such as the number of persons with joint physical and legal custody arrangements, and information about the extent of non-cash support received from non-residential parents. In addition, ordinary least squares regression and logistic regression were used to examine in more detail the predictors of child support and visitation. Multivariate models were also estimated to examine the link between child support awards, custody arrangements, visitation, and payment of child support on children's health and on the receipt of AFDC in the previous year.

Highlights of Descriptive Findings

Multivariate Results and Policy Implications

This study is not a randomized policy experiment or even a non-randomized study of specific policy initiatives. Thus, we must be circumspect about how far we go in drawing policy-related conclusions about the findings. A correlational panel study such as the present one cannot prove that a given policy will work as its advocates content it should. An observed relationship may be due to the operation of other, unmeasured factors. However, the failure to find an expected correlation can provide firmer grounds for believing that a specific policy will not work as anticipated. These results apply to couples who have a written child support agreement. Information on contact and payment of child support was not asked of persons without a written agreement. With these warnings in mind, the SIPP analyses provide support for the following types of activities:


The literature review contains three components: a synthesis of the literature on child development, custody, visitation, and child well-being; an annotated bibliography; and a selected bibliography. The synthesis briefly summarizes recent perspectives on children's development and on the role of the father in families. These two perspectives are important in understanding how and why marital disruption may affect children. The fact that children change over time, developing new skills and capacities and having different needs means that their response to the breakup of their families may differ depending upon their age at the time. Moreover, since the majority of non-custodial parents are fathers, it is important to understand the role that fathers play in children's lives and how that role changes as children grow older. The review then discusses several possible ways in which family disruption may affect children's lives. These are the loss of a parent (usually the father), the adjustment of the custodial parent, parental conflict, economic hardship stemming from the disruption, stressful life changes, including the loss of social supports and other resources. Gaps in existing research are noted. Key findings that helped guide the SIPP analysis are: