Non-custodial parents, the numbers

In arguments about the fairness of family law, most of the time the argument centers on anecdotes, or, at best, around partial, cherry-picked statistics, so I decided to look into what the numbers say as a whole about divorce, unmarried parents, custodial parents, non-custodial parents, and their socioeconomic situation.

So. For starters, most studies done on divorce show that women end up economically worse off, while men end up economically better off after a divorce. Now, this data skews a bit because the further into the past you go, the stronger the effect is, and most of the studies I was able to find were old. The most frequently reappearing study is one done in the 70’s (here is a re-evaluation of said study, from 1995), and most other ones are longitudinal studies written up in the 90’s (if someone has more recent data on this, I’d be grateful), or are studies about Europe. The last paper I link to cites non-divorce-related discrimination as the source of this impoverishment of women. This discrimination, while diminished from the 70’s and 80’s, still exists, and so a base difference in divorce outcomes very likely still exists*. The question then would be whether family court decisions are making up or even inverting the effect of this discrimination and thus lessening or reversing the impact divorce has on the people involved. And since this post is specifically about parents, whether and how divorcees with children are affected.
A study from Washington (the state, not the city) shows how the economic situations differ for joint households vs. single-parent households, and how the economic situations of parents change after a divorce. In most cases, everybody is worse off uncoupled, but the mother is worse off than the father regardless of whether she’s the custodial parent or not. Custodial mothers experience a smaller reduction than non-custodial mothers (42% vs. 48%), but custodial fathers experience a greater reduction than non-custodial fathers (14% vs. 11%). The situation looks somewhat different in Title IV-D cases(pdf link!) in which the father is the custodial parent, where the noncustodial mothers actually end up with an increase of economic well-being from a shared household, while the custodial fathers end up with a large reduction (31% for divorcees, and a drastic 85% for all cases). Despite what MRA’s claim though, custodial mothers are not better off than non-custodial fathers in any of the scenarios, both in absolute and in relative terms.
What those statistics seem to tell us that child custody does not impoverish fathers and enrich mothers, and that the only situation in which men end up worse off than women are custodial fathers in IV-D cases (but the divorced custodial fathers are still better off than the divorced custodial mothers, so I’d REALLY like to know how large the cohort of unmarried single fathers in IV-D cases is, and what causes the DRASTIC departure from all the other statistics). But the demographic most bemoaned by MRA’s, the non-custodial fathers, end up on average getting the best economic deal out of living in a separate household (meaning the least reduction of economic well-being), be it because of divorce or being unmarried, only second (and only in relative terms) to the much smaller cohort of non-custodial IV-D mothers.

The other thing that MRA’s often argue is that the Family Courts are biased because mothers are more likely to get custody than fathers, and more likely to get sole custody than have a shared custody. Apparently this was true in the 90’s, when 75% of all cases resulted in sole custody for the mother(in 40% of which the father didn’t even have visitation rights). That number however includes the 1/3 of all fathers who wanted the mother to have sole custody. When custody had to be decided by outside sources (trial or mediation), sole custody for the mother only happened 44% of the time. Still more than joint custody or sole custody to the father, but evidently it was possible for fathers to gain at least some access, if they wanted it. 70% of fathers still reported not having as much access to their children as they wanted, though (interestingly, no one compiled that statistic for women, even though 25%-56% of them might theoretically feel the same).
So, yes, at least in the 90’s there was discrimination against fathers in custody agreements. Prejudiced attitudes of fathers and mothers against the need for the father to be involved seem to have figured very heavily into this, and probably this also reflected the attitudes of the courts. How this has changed over the last 15-20 years I don’t know, but neither complete parity nor a lack of change is likely (the former because social change doesn’t happen that quickly, and the latter because attitudes towards fathers’ involvement in parenting have been changing significantly). One thing that has been happening is an increasing demand for joint custody, and some states even made joint custody mandatory, at least temporarily. That would improve the situation of the non-custodial parent in terms of access to the child, but it is not at all clear that it improves the situation of the child. Certainly, in cases where a couple chooses joint custody (or for that matter, intra-marriage co-parenting, since a lot of studies simply focus of father-involvement in raising children), the children are better off; but comparing that to cases in which joint custody wasn’t voluntarily chosen and then mandating it is a bit like saying that because children of married couples are better off than children of divorced couples, we should ban divorce. In both cases, the conflict and antisocial behavior most likely responsible for the problems won’t disappear just by removing the most obvious indicator of problems. In fact, it can make things worse.
From my personal perspective, then, joint custody mustn’t be mandatory, but it should be the default assumption of courts unless evidence is present that another arrangement is better for the child (i.e. evidence of harmful and antisocial behavior of one parent, as well as evidence for high-conflict between the parents).

In conclusion, there does seem to be some discrimination against fathers in family-court, but it’s not at all what MRA’s claim it is. Non-custodial fathers come out of a separation a lot better off than anyone else, even if they have to pay child-support. The discrimination that IS present seems to be focused on the good-oldfashioned sexist assumption that men pay and women do everything else, which means fathers who want more involvement in their children’s lives won’t necessarily get it. However, forced joint custody, while certainly better taking into account the rights of the fathers, might well be trampling on the rights of the children, and is therefore not necessarily the best solution to the problem, either. Getting away from patriarchal attitudes and patriarchal child-care assumptions would probably make it more possible to see to the welfare of a child on an individual basis.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
* originally, I’d thought to point out that this might have changed during the current recession, which resulted in a greater loss of traditionally male jobs than traditionally female jobs, but while this is true, the losses between 2007 and now were from 88% to 81% for men, and from 73% to 69% for women, and I’m not going to just assume that all these non-working women are trophy wives and voluntary SAHM’s, though I’m sure some are. And apparently, women are starting to catch up, and unlike men, they’re not just becoming unemployed, they’re leaving the labor force altogether.

18 comments on “Non-custodial parents, the numbers

  1. Will says:

    A friend recommended this post. This research is indeed valuable, but I believe ignores a couple of issues. 1st, women may be worse off after the divorce because they did not work during the marriage but now have to EARN an income. The test would be to determine their level of work/income prior/during to the marriage and then post divorce. This would be tough to do because child support is not reportable income, so to study the level of how much more a mother makes after divorce may not be possible. 2nd, “better off” is financially-focused for this article. Men are not mentally better off, and may only be financially better off because the source of financial drain (spouse) has been alleviated by divorce.

  2. Jadehawk says:

    yes will, women are still the ones expected to sacrifice their careers in order to have families. that’s what was meant by women suffering economic reduction because of non-divorce related sexism.

    and yes, men often have other quality-of-life reductions because of divorce. might have something to do with the fact that once a couple moves in together, the woman performs 6 hours more of housework, while the man performs one hour less, than before the move-in, and that after divorce the numbers may revert, leaving poor ex-hubby with a loss of 6 hours of housework he never did.

    Another part of that is that all health-related issues are traditionally the responsibility of a wife: it’s her who is supposed to make doctor’s appointments for the entire family, her who’s supposed to make healthy food, etc. whereas traditional masculinity demands of men the opposite behavior.

    so a man who loses this woman whose job was making him be less unhealthy might end up less healthy.

    none of this refutes anything in this post, however.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Larry Agresto, Krista Brown. Krista Brown said: Non-custodial parents, the numbers « Jadehawk's Blog: A study from Washington (the state, not the city), shows h… […]

  4. Pteryxx says:

    Also note that abusive husbands often actively prevent their wives from working, take their paychecks away if they do work, and use money as another weapon of domination. It’s unsurprising that these women may have difficulty learning to be financially independent once separated.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Hey. Do you have access to JSTOR now? :-)

    And apparently, women are starting to catch up, and unlike men, they’re not just becoming unemployed, they’re leaving the labor force altogether.


    and yes, men often have other quality-of-life reductions because of divorce. might have something to do with the fact that […]

    Pwnd! :-D

    take their paychecks away if they do work

    Are people still handed literal paychecks in the USA?

    Over here, wages and salaries are wired to your bank account. If you don’t look at your bank account statements, you don’t even know if you’ve been paid.

  6. Jadehawk says:

    Are people still handed literal paychecks in the USA?

    yup. you go in to work on payday, pick up a physical piece of paper, and go to the bank (or one of those “check-cashing” businesses) to turn it into cash or deposit it.

    And it’s only recent (and maybe not even at all banks) that cashing checks not actually addressed to you isn’t allowed anymore.

  7. David Marjanović says:


    Do you mean checks addressed anonymously (to “the carrier of this check”), or checks explicitly addressed to other people? I can imagine that the former was abolished because otherwise the triple-R terrrists win.

  8. Jadehawk says:

    checks explicitly addressed to other people. at least that’s how the bank-person explained it to me (if this is incorrect, I blame them)

  9. Ewan R says:

    David – literal paychecks aren’t always the case (I haven’t had one in 3 different jobs over the past 5 years, ranging from crappy hourly work through to current position), however abusive husbands can still “take the paycheck” even if it doesn’t literally exist by exerting absolute control over “shared” bank accounts etc.

    That 1/3 of fathers want the mother to have sole custody is a pretty depressing statistic (not that all the statistics covered aren’t) – certainly doesn’t compute at all for me, loss of access to my child would leave me practically suicidal and I can’t fathom why it wouldn’t have the same effect on anyone else.

  10. Will says:

    Per your comment “and yes, men often have other quality-of-life reductions because of divorce. might have something to do with the fact that once a couple moves in together, the woman performs 6 hours more of housework, while the man performs one hour less, than before the move-in, and that after divorce the numbers may revert, leaving poor ex-hubby with a loss of 6 hours of housework he never did.”
    That is probably not a supportable statement. An international study of 17,636 men and women in 28 countries, published in the September (2007) issue of the Journal of Family Issues states that cohabiting men do more work whereas married men do less work. It has been my experience that cohabiting couples both have a job; whereas one of the married couples does not. Hence; if the married person is at home and not on the job market, then said person should be working. But only working six hours is unfair to the working spouse who is doing from 8 to 15 hours, and then expected to come home and do the laundry, clean the dished, or take out the trash. That would only sound sexist if you have a bent on the person staying home is female. My gay friends have this same issue, and so too do my male friends who stay at home.
    It is also my experience the husband has attained much more responsibility toward family matters; to include professional work and home work. Even reviewing the rise of work done by the father in the research conducted by Sayer (2004) “Sayer, L. C. , 2004-08-14 “Gender Differences in Married Women’s and Men’s Responsibility for Unpaid Work” one would could extrapolate upward to see that not only does a father do much more work than reported, but also doubles the responsibility. That statement is supported by Schutt, R. (2004). Investigating the social world : the process and practice of research (4th ed.)
    There are countless other new publications demonstrating the unfairness the courts executing against the “poor old hubby”, and from experience I say this is true. I spent much more time in both quality and quantity than my former spouse, even though she was a stay at home mom. She put them in “mother’s time out” programs until I came home and cooked for them. She was a good mother, but I was a better father and mother. Yet, the courts would not hear my attempt to get my children as (legally) they were more nurtured by their mother who had spent the most time with them. What’s worse is that if she decided to change the locks while I was at work, she could have also got the house. Now I pay alimony, and non-begrudgingly pay child support at just under 2000 per month; while still buying the kids clothes and paying for their camps etc. I assure you, my case is not the only one. Take some time to interview and read issues on Your views may soften as countless fathers are not as bad as past research espouses.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    abusive husbands can still “take the paycheck” even if it doesn’t literally exist by exerting absolute control over “shared” bank accounts etc.

    I see.

    […] and I can’t fathom why it wouldn’t have the same effect on anyone else.

    Some people simply don’t like children, not even their own, or probably in particular their own unwanted children.

    Though I agree that 1/3 sounds like a bit much!

  12. Jadehawk says:

    that’s a nice essay will, but what does it have to do with the additional 6 hours of housework (in addition to the out-of-the-house job) that women do?

    are you familiar with the term “second shift”?

  13. Jadehawk says:

    in fact, this is how these housework hours work out, according to a 2005 study:

    single women do 12 hours of housework. married, childless women do 17 hours, while their husbands do 13. women with more than 3 children did 28 hours (while their husbands clocked in at a paltry 10 hours).

    now, that same study is much nicer in the assessment of people in their 20’s who really are more egalitarian. which is a good trend. but people in their 20’s are a minority of people, obviously.

    on the other hand, marriage is bad for equality, and career-women better not marry career-men, or they’re screwed (and then get accused, as per will above, of being “unfair” for being a SAHM, and maybe even expecting child-support after they get fed up with having sacrificed their career for nothing)

  14. Will says:

    I’m looking for your 6 hours more of work or “second shift” as you call it. My research does not bear this out.

  15. Jadehawk says:

    if your research is primarily from MRA and “fathers rights” sites, it obviously wouldn’t indicate any such thing.

  16. Will says:

    None of my research is from those sources. JSTOR, SciVerse, Family Relations, JM&F, Sage are sufficient. Cheers

  17. Well of course the financial situation is more tuff for single parent housholds.

  18. Martin says:

    But such generalisations are so pointless ! I did most of the housework when I was married, in addition to paying all the bills. Now that I have left, my ex is worse off because she has to do the housework in her own household, and her bills still get largely paid by me as per the existing laws, and to a degree by her dad. If you start off with an economical imbalance, of course it will still be there, or be even more pronounced, when you split up !

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