Chapter 2. Primary Findings and Results
In this chapter
- 2.1 Demographic Characteristics of Custodial Parents
- 2.2 Economic Characteristics of Custodial Parents
- 2.3 Demographic Characteristics of Nonparent Custodians
- 2.4 Economic Characteristics of Nonparent Custodians
- 2.5 Demographic Characteristics of Noncustodial Parents
- 2.6 Demographic Characteristics of Children Eligible for Support
The child support population in the United States is projected to reach 72 million by 2009, a 15 percent increase over the 1998 estimate of 62 million. By 2009, the child support population will include 17 million custodial parents, almost 3 million nonparent custodians, 22 million noncustodial parents, and over 30 million children eligible for support. Although the overall number of custodians and children in the child support population remains high, the projections for the year 2009 indicate a significant slowing of the growth of the child support population. Still, certain segments of the child support population will continue to experience strong rates of increase. For example, the number of nonparent custodians will increase dramatically, as will the number of custodial fathers and never-married custodians. Other groups, such as divorced custodial parents, will experience little growth.
We will first discuss the results of our projections for each of the components of the child support population: custodial parents, nonparent custodians, noncustodial parents, and children eligible for child support. Throughout the report we will indicate the underlying historical trends and economic conditions driving these projections. 
The child support population of the United States encounters singular economic challenges. Characterized by higher rates of poverty and lower levels of education than the rest of the population, the child support community faces hardships that do not necessarily derive from the burdens of supporting children. The more information we have about the demographic trends and economic needs of the families requiring child support the better informed our programs and policy debates will be.
2.1. Demographic Characteristics of Custodial Parents
A custodial parent is a parent who lives with and cares for at least one child in a household separate from that of the other biological or legal parent. We project that the number of custodial parents will reach 16.1 million by 2004 and 16.8 million by 2009. Thus, in absolute terms, the number of custodial parents will increase moderately. As shown in Figure 2.1, however, average annual changes in the number of custodial parents will be substantially lower in both projection periods (1998-2004 and 2004-2009) than during the previous ten years. The rate of growth of the child support population has slowed for three reasons. First, the population of the United States is aging out of the prime parenthood years. Over the next ten years, the large cohorts of baby boomers will begin to be replaced by the much smaller cohorts of the baby bust. Second, nonmarital fertility has been fairly constant over the past five years and is projected to remain so (albeit at a very high level by historic standards). And third, divorce rates in the United States have declined from their peak in the early 1980s. Even though the rate of growth has slowed, the number of custodial parents in the United States will continue to rise at a faster rate than the nation’s overall population growth rate between 1998 and 2009. The number of custodial parents will increase by 14 percent, while the nation’s population will grow by only 10 percent.
The projections of the numbers of custodial parents and the analysis of their characteristics, combined with the estimates developed in the baseline report, portray a population experiencing remarkable growth and change. Between 1988 and 2009, the number of custodial parents in the United States will have increased by almost 50 percent. Not only is the number of custodial parents changing rapidly, so too are their characteristics. For example, in 1988 the typical custodial parent was a 32-year-old divorced mother living in a central city of a metropolitan area; by 2009, the typical custodial parent will be a 35-year-old, never-married mother living in a suburb. Likewise, there have been dramatic increases in the number of custodial fathers and in the number of Hispanic custodial parents. Below, we discuss the increases in the number of custodial fathers and the geographical distribution of custodial parents.
One of the most noteworthy changes in the child support population of the United States has been and will continue to be the large increases in the number of custodial fathers. From 1988 to 2009, the number of custodial fathers is projected to increase by 33 percent. In contrast, the number of custodial mothers will increase by only 11 percent. These large increases in the number of custodial fathers are a reflection of the increasing probabilities of being a custodial parent among men. Figure 2.2 shows trends in the probability of being a custodial parent by gender, with the 1988 probabilities by gender indexed to 100. Among adult men, the probability of being a custodial parent was 1.4times higher in 1998 than in 1988.
During the late 1990s, as the probabilities of being a custodial parent were increasing for men, the probabilities were decreasing for women. In particular, white men, either divorced or separated, were much more likely to be custodial fathers in 1998 than in 1988. Despite these increases, it is important to recall that women remain much more likely to be custodial parents. In the late 1990s, almost 12 percent of adult women in the United States were custodial parents, compared to less than 3 percent of adult men. We project that in 2009 four out of every five custodial parents will be a custodial mother.
The race and ethnic composition of custodial parents will change in the coming decade. Hispanics and Asians have been the fastest growing groups and are projected to remain so through 2009 (see Figure 2.3). Not surprisingly, these increases in the number of Hispanic and Asian custodial parents are driven primarily by the overall population growth of these groups within the United States. In contrast, whites and African Americans will experience little growth; for some key age groups the number of white and African American custodial parents actually declines. Furthermore, among African American adults, the probability of being a custodial parent declined from the mid 1990s to the late 1990s (from almost 18 percent to less than 16 percent) and is projected to continue to decline slightly. Still, African Americans are much more likely to be custodial parents than other groups, and, despite increasing probabilities of being a custodial parent, Asians and Pacific Islanders will remain the group least likely to be a custodial parent. By 2009, whites will still comprise a majority of custodial parents (56 percent), African American custodial parents are projected to comprise 22 percent, Hispanics 18 percent, Asians and Pacific Islanders 3 percent, and all others 4 percent.
The percentage of custodial parents living in specific regions of the United States will have changed little between 1988 and 2009. What little change does occur reflects overall trends in regional population growth. While the number of custodial parents is projected to increase in each region, the rate of increase in the slowest growing region, the Northeast (7 percent increase between 1988 and 2009), will be much lower than in the fastest growing region, the West (23 percent increase). By 2009, the West will replace the Midwest as the second most populated region for custodial parents. The South will remain home to almost 40 percent of custodial parents; it has a larger population than any other region in the United States and the likelihood of being a custodial parent is greater in the South than in other regions. Although regional percentages do not change substantially, this does not mean that there has been no geographical change in the child support population, only that the change cannot be detected at the regional level. If we were to look at each individual state we would no doubt find greater differences in the growth and decline of the child support populations of specific states.
The regional stability in the distribution of custodial parents further belies a dramatic geographical shift from urban to suburban areas. In 1988, central cities of metropolitan areas were the leading places of residence of custodial parents. Thirty-eight percent of all custodial parents lived in these highly urban environments. Thirty-seven percent lived in other parts of the city. By 2009 the suburbs will have replaced the central city as the leading location of custodial parents. Forty-nine percent of custodial parents will live in the suburbs and only 29 percent will live in the central city. The child support population is thus no longer primarily a phenomenon of the central city but rather a suburban phenomenon. This twenty-year trend occurs for at least two reasons. First, the population of the United States has gravitated toward the suburbs; more people live in the suburbs than in urban city centers. Second, the incidence of nonmarital childbearing has increased throughout the population, becoming more widespread among all races and in all regions, including the suburbs.
Although the location of the custodial households has changed, there is virtually no change in the number of children per custodial household. In 1998 each household including a custodial parent had an average of 1.82 children. In 2009 the figure is projected to be 1.81. Thus the number of children per household has neither increased nor decreased dramatically in years. This constancy in the number of children per custodial household reflects the stable levels of fertility in the United States over the last twenty years, even though substantial changes have occurred in terms of the marital status of parents and the presence of both parents in the same household.
Clearly the most dramatic demographic change projected for custodial parents in 2009 is the increase in the number of never-married custodial parents. The number of never-married custodial parents increased from 3.1 million in 1988 to 4.9 million in 1998, and is projected to rise to 6.6 million in 2009. While the percentage of divorced custodial parents in the total custodial parent population is projected to decline from 49 percent in 1988 to 37 percent in 2009, the number of custodial parents that have never been married is projected to increase from 27 percent in 1988 to 39 percent in 2009. These dramatic changes reflect increases in the number of nonmarital births in the United States over the past fifteen to twenty years and declines in the divorce rate. Though nonmarital fertility leveled off a bit between 1993 and 1998, it did so at a high level. That high level is expected to continue over the next ten years. (See section four for a more complete discussion of underlying trends). In 1975, 14 out of every 100 babies were born to unmarried women. In 1995, 32 out of every 100 babies were born to unmarried women. Thus, new cohorts born today are more likely than those born twenty years ago (and as likely as those born five years ago) to be born to unmarried women. As older cohorts of children age out of the child support system, the younger cohorts replacing them are more likely to be born to unmarried women. Hence, high nonmarital fertility rates will continue to lead to substantial increases in the child support population.
2.2. Economic Characteristics of Custodial Parents
Forecasting the economy is more difficult than forecasting the demographic characteristics of a population. The United States has sustained record economic growth during the mid to late 1990s. Economists believe that a downturn will eventually occur, but it is hard to predict with any accuracy when a recession will hit. In order to keep our economic projections reliable, we have compared similar points in the business cycle, such as the strong economies in the late 1980s and the late 1990s. If current trends continue—if we do not experience a recession in 2004 or 2009—the socioeconomic outlook for custodial parents is mostly favorable.
Educational attainment levels for custodial parents jumped considerably between 1988 and 1998 and are expected to continue to improve at a more moderate rate as we approach 2009. In 1988, fewer than one out of three custodial parents had attended or graduated from college. By 1998, 43 percent had been to college, and, by 2009, nearly one out of every two custodial parents will have graduated from or attended college. In contrast, 16 percent will have never completed high school. These higher levels of educational attainment reflect increases that are occurring throughout the United States, with each successive generation completing more schooling than preceding generations.
From 1988 to 1998, labor force participation rates for custodial parents increased substantially. By 1998, almost 80 percent of custodial parents were in the labor force (either employed or looking for work). The decline in the share of custodial parents not in the labor force was especially dramatic in the last part of the 1990s, undoubtedly due to a continuing strong economy and also, at least in part, due to welfare reform. We project that this trend toward increasing labor force participation will continue at a slower pace, so that by 2009 about 84 percent of custodial parents will be in the labor force. These projections assume that 2009 will not be a recession year. Custodial parents are not only of prime childbearing and childrearing years, they are also of prime working age.
We also project that poverty rates for custodial parents will continue their long- term decline, though remain at high levels. One out of every three custodial parents fell below the poverty level in 1988. With the recession of the early 1990s, those rates reached 36 percent. The strong economy throughout the rest of the 1990s led to tremendous declines in poverty rates among custodial parents, so that by 1999 the poverty rate had fallen to 28 percent (see Figure 2.4). Still, this is more than double the nation’s overall poverty rate of 12 percent for the same year. By 2009, we project that one out of every four custodial parents will live in poverty, a projection that assumes a slowing of the rate of decline in poverty. As in the past, certain groups will experience much higher levels of poverty than others. In particular, never-married custodial parents will continue to experience poverty rates about seven times higher than married custodial parents.
Forecasting the receipt of public assistance is even more difficult than developing projections for other economic indicators. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) and the strong economy have led to dramatic declines in public assistance utilization among all segments of the population, including custodial parents (see Figure 2.5).
Whether these declines continue into the future depend on the economy and future welfare policy. Indeed, the relative importance of welfare reform policies, on the one hand, and the economy, on the other hand, in reducing welfare caseloads is the subject of much debate. In a review of the studies for congressional testimony, Moffit (1999) concluded that research suggests just over half of the 1993-1996 decrease in caseloads could be explained by the declining unemployment rate. However, up through 1996, it appeared that the welfare caseload was becoming more sensitive to the business cycle over time; Moffit believes that welfare reform may in turn reduce the sensitivity of the caseload to the economy. In their research, Ziliak and Figlio find that a recession similar to the last one could increase welfare rolls by up to 8 percent (a small increase relative to the current downturns). Mayer (2000) also surveyed the literature on welfare caseloads and reached five main conclusions: 1) the best single predictor of caseloads in any given year is their level in the prior year; 2) a one point increase in the unemployment rate would increase caseloads by 4 to 6 percent; 3) higher benefits increase caseloads (though there is little consensus on the role of other parameters such as work requirements); 4) the number of single mothers is an important determinant of caseloads; and 5) models explain only a small fraction of the variance in caseload changes and do a worse job for recent years. Given these difficulties in understanding recent declines in public assistance use, let alone projecting such use for the future, we have simply held public assistance utilization rates at 13 percent for custodial parents.
2.3. Demographic Characteristics of Nonparent Custodians
A nonparent custodian is the primary caregiver of a child who lives without a biological or legal parent in the household. Foster parents are not included in this category. Between 1998 and 2009, we project that the number of nonparent custodians will increase from 2.4 million to 2.9 million. Although the number of nonparent custodians is increasing at a less rapid rate than in the past, the growth rate for nonparent custodians is faster than the growth rate of custodial parents (23 percent versus 14 percent), and more than double the growth rate of the entire United States population. The determinants of this slowdown are the same determinants that drive the slowing of the rate of increase in the child support population as a whole: declining rates of divorce, the aging of the baby boom, and the relative stability in nonmarital fertility rates. The pool of children eligible for child support will not increase as quickly in the next ten years as in the past ten years.
Just as the percentage of men who are custodial parents has increased in the past ten years, so has the number of men who are nonparent custodians. In 1988, 48 percent of nonparent custodians were men. By 1998, the number had risen to 53 percent. We project that the percentage of male nonparent custodians will change little to 2009, increasing to 55 percent.
Both male and female nonparent custodians tend to be older than their custodial parent counterparts. In 1998 four out of ten nonparent custodians were aged 50 or older. Almost half were grandparents. Many nonparent custodians are baby boomers, and as baby boomers age, so will nonparent custodians. From 1988 to 2009, the proportion of nonparent custodians less than 30 years of age will have decreased from 28 percent to 21 percent. From 1998 to 2009, the proportion of nonparent custodians aged 60 and over will have increased from 20 percent to 24 percent. To the extent that many nonparent custodians are grandparents, the increase in age of nonparent custodians also reflects increasing generational lengths as the average age at birth for parents has increased over the past two decades.
The race and ethnic composition of these older nonparent custodians will continue to change at a moderate pace in the next ten years. Most dramatic will be increases in Hispanic nonparent custodians, increasing from 18 percent of all nonparent custodians in 1998 to a projected 23 percent in 2009. The large growth in the number of nonparent custodians who are Hispanic and Asian reflects the rapid population growth for these groups in the United States. In fact, the number of Asian and Hispanic children will grow even faster than the number of Asian and Hispanic adults. (See section three for an extended discussion of the Asian and Hispanic child support population.) As shown in Figure 2.6, Asian and Hispanic nonparent custodians experienced the fastest growth between 1988 and 1998, and, though their growth rates will slow, they will continue to be the fastest growing groups to 2009.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the nonparent custodial population of the United States was concentrated in the South, with over half of all nonparent custodians living in the South in 1988. By 2009, the regional distribution of the nonparent custodial population of the United States is projected to be much closer to that of the custodial parent population, with 43 percent of nonparent custodians residing in the South, 20 percent in the Midwest, 15 percent in the Northeast, and 22 percent in the West. These trends partly reflect regional population growth, but also the increased probability of being a nonparent custodian in all regions of the country except the South.
Like custodial parents, nonparent custodians are increasingly found in the suburbs. By 2009, almost four in every ten nonparent custodians will reside in the suburban portion of a metropolitan area. In contrast, in 1988 the leading location of residence for nonparent custodians was the central city. The shift toward the suburbs is not quite as dramatic for nonparent custodians as it is for custodial parents. In part, this is because nonparent custodians are already more likely than custodial parents to live completely outside of urban and suburban areas. Twenty-seven percent of nonparent custodians will live in a non-metropolitan area in 2009; twenty-two percent of custodial parents will make this same choice. Again, the child support population will continue to increase in suburban portions of metropolitan areas simply because more people are moving to and living in the suburban United States.
The demographic trend away from the central cities has not affected the average number of children in the nonparent custodial households. From 1998 to 2009 the number of children per custodial household is projected to drop negligibly, from 1.82 to 1.81. Thus, even though there are more people deciding to have children without getting married, the number of children per custodial household remains remarkably consistent.
Nonparent custodians, as with custodial parents, are increasingly less likely to have ever married in the twenty-year period we are examining. While only 27 percent of custodial parents were never married in 1988, the proportion is projected to increase to 39 percent in 2009. For nonparent custodians, the percentage who have never married is expected to increase as well, from 22 percent to 29 percent over the same time period. Thus, taken together, the rise in the number of never-married adults raising children is quite striking. In one respect, the change in marital status of nonparent custodians is more dramatic than the change in marital status of custodial parents. One of every four custodial parents are married, both in the estimates for 1988 and in the projections for 2009. In contrast, 50 percent of nonparent custodians were married in 1988, but, by 2009, only 39 percent will be married and 61 percent will be either divorced, separated, never-married, or widowed. Thus the percentage of nonparent custodians thate are married will decrease significantly while the percentage of custodial parents that are married is projected to remain relatively constant. Of course, the increase in the proportion of never-married custodial parents remains overall more striking than the decrease in the number of married nonparent custodians because there are far more custodial parents in the child support system than there are nonparent custodians.
2.4. Economic Characteristics of Nonparent Custodians
Despite the rapid increase in divorced and separated nonparent custodians, the socioeconomic outlook for nonparent custodians is one of general improvement. If current trends continue, nonparent custodians will be less likely to live in poverty and will be better educated than in the past.
Educational attainment levels will increase for nonparent custodians. By 2009, more than one in every three will have either attended or graduated from college. This represents a doubling in the proportion of better educated nonparent custodians from 1988. The improvements in educational attainment levels of nonparent custodians is at least in part a cohort effect. Younger adults in the United States tend to be better educated than older adults. Over time, these younger, better- educated cohorts will replace the older, less-educated nonparent custodians of today. Still, the distribution of educational attainment levels of nonparent custodians is projected to be bipolar, with large numbers of very poorly educated nonparent custodians projected to be of similar size to those at the other end of the education spectrum. We project that by 2009, one of every three nonparent custodians will have failed to complete high school, a rate much higher than that of the general adult population in the United States.
For nonparent custodians, we also project that poverty rates will decline, though still remain at high levels. From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, poverty rates for nonparent custodians declined from 35 percent to 28 percent (see Figure 2.7). Our projections for 2009 anticipate that about one in every four nonparent custodians will live in poverty, a substantial improvement over the 1988 level of 35 percent. These projections assume that long-term trends will continue. We are comparing similar periods with strong economies (the late 1980s and late 1990s). However, if 2004 or 2009 proves to be a recession year, then the projected poverty rates will be too low.
2.5. Demographic Characteristics of Noncustodial Parents
Noncustodial parents are those parents who do not live with and are not the primary caregivers of their biological or legal children. Noncustodial parents could be either the former spouse of a custodial parent, or the parent of a child whose primary caregiver is neither the mother nor the father. As shown in Table 2.1, the number of noncustodial parents is projected to surpass 22 million by 2009. The rate of growth in the noncustodial parent population of the United States is expected to slow to 16 percent between 1998 and 2009, half the rate of increase in the previous ten years. This slower growth is the direct result of the slowing in the rate of increase in custodial parents and nonparent custodians discussed earlier. As in the past, the number of noncustodial parents that are the parents of children for whom neither parent is the primary caregiver is projected to grow at a faster rate than the number of noncustodial parents who are the spouses of custodial parents (23 percent versus 14 percent between 1998 and 2009).
|Spouses of custodial parents||11,574,000||14,667,000||16,142,000||16,786,000|
|Parents of children not living with either
The vast majority of noncustodial parents are fathers, though the proportion of noncustodial parents that are mothers is increasing (see Figure 2.8). Between 1998 and 2009, the number of noncustodial mothers is projected to increase 28 percent while the number of noncustodial fathers is projected to increase only 13 percent. The more rapid growth for noncustodial mothers is the direct consequence of increasing probabilities of fathers serving as primary caregivers. Still, it is important to note that the vast majority of custodial parents are mothers, and will be so in the future. Indeed, our estimates and projections suggest that noncustodial fathers can expect their children to be cared for by the mother, while only about half of noncustodial mothers can expect their children to be cared for by their fathers. Our projection for 2009, for example, indicates that for 83 percent of noncustodial fathers, the mothers of their children are the primary caregivers; on the other hand, only about half (53 percent) of noncustodial mother’s children live with the children’s father.
2.6. Demographic Characteristics of Children Eligible for Support
The children eligible for child support are those children who have at least one parent not living with them. Again, this category excludes children living in group quarters and foster children. The number of children in the child support system grew dramatically from 1988 to 1998, increasing by 17 percent. The number of children in the United States as a whole increased by only 10 percent. Thus the rate of growth for children in the child support system was almost twice the rate of growth of the number of children in the general population. In the next ten years, the rate of increase will slow, but the overall number of children in the child support system will continue to rise. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that there will be 72 million children in the United States in 2009, and we project that 30 million children will live in households eligible for child support (see Figure 2.9). The overall number of children in the United States increases in large part due to cohort effects—a larger number of adults reaching childbearing age—not because the average adult is having more children than in the past. The United States population as a whole continues to increase, despite a fertility rate that hovers just below replacement rate, because of these cohort effects and also because of immigration.
Still, the number of children in the United States is projected to increase only 3 percent between 1998 and 2009, with most of that growth occurring between 1998 and 2004. These small increases in the number of children in the United States are accompanied by, and indeed largely determine, the slowing of the rate of increase in the child support population. Between 1998 and 2004, we project that the number of children eligible for child support will increase 9 percent, and between 2004 and 2009 we project that the increase will be less than 4 percent. The faster growth of the child support population than the number of children in the United States can be understood as a consequence of historic and ongoing changes in nonmarital fertility and divorce. In 2009, a 17-year-old child will be almost three times as likely to have been born to an unmarried mother as a 17-year-old child was in 1988. Similarly, a 17-year-old in 2009 would have been raised in an era of substantially higher divorce rates than a 17-year-old in 1988. It is these older children, those between the ages of 14 and 17, who will experience the largest increases in population between 1998 and 2009. These older children are the last of the children of the baby boomers.