(This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Support Network

With child support, contact with the father may be as important as the dollars

Child support is a good thing, right? Not always. New research published in the March 2012 Social Service Review has found that children whose fathers paid below the median level of formal child support—$1,500—were more likely to show more aggression and more “internalizing behavior” like depression, anxiety and withdrawal.

But the results are different for the children of mothers who receive money informally, outside the normal legal channels through which child support has traditionally flowed. Data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, a study of thousands of families from 20 American cities, suggests a link between informal child support and higher cognitive development.

What’s going on here?

One of the more striking demographic shifts in recent decades is that about 40 percent of children today are born outside of marriage. This change has greatly complicated child support arrangements.

Formal child support agreements usually stem from marriage and divorce. But when parents are unmarried, they typically make informal arrangements. There’s a downside to these. Children born to unmarried parents are less likely to receive support than the children of divorced parents. And yet the informal system may be better for children, at least when compared to the low levels of formal support that are typical among the poor.

Lenna Nepomnyaschy, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Rutgers University and lead author of “Child Support and Young Children’s Development,” says it’s not the money exchanged that seems to matter most. Certainly money is not unimportant. Indeed, women often prefer informal payments because the government usually withholds a portion of formal child support to compensate for public assistance the mother receives.

And yet what seems to matter more than the money is the time the father spends with his children. Children benefit from contact with an absent father, and informal agreements seem to encourage that contact, Nepomnyaschy says. She speculates that informal payments may create the occasion for visits, or that fathers might stay engaged in order to exert influence over and to monitor how the money is spent. Indeed, the regularity of payments is more important than the amount.

Nepomnyaschy and her colleagues were surprised to find evidence that formal child support agreements might actually harm children. They reason that formal agreements may indicate high-conflict circumstances or other situations in which informal agreements fail. In these cases, no contact might be better than some.

Nepomnyaschy says the study’s results don’t imply that policymakers should discount the value of child support. Rather, it underscores the need to find ways of encouraging fathers to spend time with their children.

Lenna Nepomnyaschy, Katherine A. Magnuson, and Lawrence M. Berger. 2012. “Child Support and Young Children’s Development.” Social Service Review 86 (1): 3-35.