Family Changes and Greater Need for Child Support

This post highlights public policy and family science research being conducted by Dr. Jill Boelter, Ph.D. at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. Dr. Boelter is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the LBJ School and completed her Doctor of Philosophy in Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas.

Within the past 30 years, there have been sweeping changes in how families are formed and how they split up. These changes have led to an increase in the need for formal (legally binding) and informal (verbally agreed upon) child support arrangements. Historically, couples were far more likely to marry prior to having children, and the primary reason for establishing a child support order was because of a divorce. Couples were also more likely to be headed by a single earner who provided the financial support needed to care for a child.

Today, couples are more likely to bear children in non-marital unions, and child support is often necessitated by relationships that dissolve prior to marriage or even prior to the birth of the child. The need for formal or informal child support has risen along with increases in the rates of families headed by single parents, never married cohabiting couples, and complex multiple partner relationships. Parents are also more likely to depend on two incomes to financially support a child than was true in the past. Yet families today are less able to rely on steady incomes from one or both parents.

The most prevalent change in family formations is the increase in single-parent families. The prevalence of children who live in single-parent households in Texas has increased substantially from 20.4% of children in 1990 to 29.6% of children in 2010 [1]. Overall, as of 2010, 42% of children in Texas had been born to unmarried mothers [2].

Children living with one parent are at increased risk of living in poverty. As of 2010, 38% of single-parent families in Texas were living below the poverty level [3] compared to 12% of married-parent families [4]. Receipt of child support may make a significant contribution to the financial well-being of children.

Another major change is the decrease in the overall marriage rate and increase in rates of cohabitation. Marriage rates in Texas decreased approximately 32% between 1990 and 2009 [5]. During the same time period, the national rates of cohabiting couples with children increased from 0.6 million households (with children under the age of 15) in 1986 to 7.6 million households (with children under the age of 18) in 2010 [6]. Despite the appearance of living as a married couple, cohabiting couples with children are less stable than married couples with children, which place children at increased risk of living in a single-parent household in the future [7].

Less stable family formations have also led to an increased prevalence of complex families, or individuals who have children with multiple partners. Nationally, at least 60% of children are born to unmarried parents and 21% of children born to married parents will live in a complex family household at some point in the future [8, 9].

Overall, the greater diversity of family formations now common in Texas have resulted in a greater need for families to establish a reliable child support arrangement than in the past; a trend likely to continue in the future. Single parents are less able to provide a standard of living above the poverty line with only a single income than in the past, making it imperative that both parents contribute to the financial costs of raising a child.

Most parents who dissolve their romantic relationship would likely benefit from a formal, legally binding agreement to increase the likelihood that payments from the noncustodial parent are fair and made in regular installments until the child reaches adulthood. Informal agreements may work well for cohabiting couples who combine their incomes like married couples until the relationship dissolves or leads to marriage. Ultimately, however, it is most critical that children receive reliable financial support from both biological parents.

[1] The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center. Profile for the state of Texas: Children in single parent families (Percent) – 1990 to 2006-2010. Retrieved from Data provided by Center for Public Policy Priorities.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Vital Statistics System, 2010. Table: Percent of Births to Unmarried U.S. Mothers, 2010. Retrieved from

[3] The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center. Profile for the state of Texas: Single-parent families with related children that are below poverty. Retrieved from Data provided by Center for Public Policy Priorities.

[4] The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center. Profile for the state of Texas: Married-parent families with related children that are below poverty. Retrieved from Data provided by Center for Public Policy Priorities.

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Marriage rates by state: 1990, 1995, 1999-2009. National Vital Statistics System.

[6] U.S. Census Bureau. (2011). Current Population Survey (CPS), March and Annual Social and Economic Supplements, 2010 and earlier. Table UC-1.  Unmarried Partners of the Opposite Sex, by Presence of Children:1960 to Present.

[7] Manning, W. D. (2004). Children and the stability of cohabiting couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 674-689.

[8] Cancian, M., Meyer, D. R., & Cook, S. T. (2011). The evolution of family complexity from the perspective of nonmarital children. Demography, 48, 957-982.

[9] Carlson, M. J., & Furstenberg, F. F. (2006). The prevalence and correlates of multipartnered fertility among urban U.S. parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 718–732.

Lisa Steffek

About Lisa Steffek

Lisa Steffek is a third year student at the University of Houston Law Center. Lisa completed her Bachelors, Masters and Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Texas in Human Development and Family Sciences. As an undergraduate, Lisa worked as a research assistant studying child attachment. Lisa also worked for several years at The Settlement Home, a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed adolescent females. Most of the girls at The Settlement Home had been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, and Lisa worked with the girls to teach them life-skills and provided psychological treatment to prepare them for adulthood and the transition to foster homes. Lisa also worked for six years in various academic capacities at the University of Texas, including an undergraduate teaching assistant, graduate research assistant, and undergraduate writing consultant. Lisa has presented papers regarding human development at various academic conferences in the states and abroad, and has had her writing published in an international, academic journal.

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