Linking Family Change, Parents' Employment and Income and Children's Economic Well-Being: A Longitudinal Perspective

4. CHANGES OVER TIME: LIVING ARRANGEMENTS, FATHER‑CHILD CONTACT AND CHILD SUPPORT

The custody and access arrangements put in place when parents separate are far from static, evolving in response to developments in the lives of the individuals involved (Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992). Data from the first two cycles make it possible to assess the extent of modifications both in the children's principal residence (living with father or mother, or alternating between parents) and the contact maintained with the “other” parent over a two-year period. The small number of children in their father's custody after separation, however, makes it difficult to include levels of mother-child contact, so only variations in the level of father-child contact are shown.

4.1 Changes in children's living arrangements and frequency of father-child contact

Figure 11 presents the distribution of children according to living arrangements and father-child contact in 1994-95 and 1996-97 for children whose parents were already living apart in 1994‑95.[7] The rise in the proportion of children living with their father (from 7 percent to 12 percent) shows that some fathers strengthen the relationship with their children over time. For others, contact becomes less frequent and may even stop: 23 percent of children had lost contact with their father by 1996‑97, up from 17 percent in 1994‑95. However, the most conspicuous change is the declining proportion of children in shared custody: from 8 percent to less than 1 percent.

Comparing cross-sectional distributions, however, hides the true extent of changes in children's lives. In fact, more than 40 percent of these children experienced some change in their contact with their father in the two-year period separating the cycles (see Table 9). The only children for whom the relationship with their father remained constant were those in their father's custody in 1994-95, almost all were still living with him at the end of the period. Children in shared custody in 1994-95 were most affected; more than 90 percent had different living arrangements two years later. However, this did not necessarily mean less contact with their father, since approximately 40 percent were living with him full-time at the end of the period. Moreover, most of the other children who had moved in with their mother continued seeing their father regularly.

Table 9
Contact with father in 1994-95 and 1996-97 among children of separated parents who were living with their mother in 1994‑95, NLSCY

Contact with father in 1994-95 Distribution in 1994-95 Living arrangements/contact with father in 1996-97
Living
with
father
(%)
Shared
living
arrangements
(%)
N %
Lives with father 119 7 96 -
Shared living arrangements 137 8 41 9
Lives with mother, contact with father        
· weekly 399 23 2 -
· two weekly 334 20 2 -
· sporadic 1 424 25 2 -
· no contact 294 17 - -
Distribution 1996-97 1,707 100 12 1

Contact with father in 1994-95 Distribution in
1994-95
Living arrangements/contact with father in 1996-97
Lives with mother, contact with father
Weekly
(%)
Biweekly
(%)
Sporadic 1
(%)
No
contact
(%)
N %
Lives with father 119 7 - - - -
Shared living arrangements 137 8 24 20 6 -
Lives with mother, contact with father            
· weekly 399 23 56 19 13 10
· two weekly 334 20 15 60 14 9
· sporadic 1 424 25 10 11 55 22
· no contact 294 17 - 7 15 78
Distribution 1996-97 1,707 100 20 22 22 23

Contact with father in 1994-95 Distribution
in 1994-95
Total Change between
Cycle 1 and Cycle 2
(%)
N %
Lives with father 119 7 - 4
Shared living arrangements 137 8 100 91
Lives with mother, contact with father        
·   weekly 399 23 100 44
·   two weekly 334 20 100 40
·   sporadic 1 424 25 100 45
·   no contact 294 17 100 22
Distribution 1996-97 1,707 100 100 41

1 Includes monthly visits, holidays only or irregular visits.

Figure 11 - Distribution of children with parents separated before Cycle 1, according to living arrangements and contact with father, NLSCY, 1994-95 and 1996-97

Although research indicates that father-child contact tends to decline with time following the separation, many children living with their mother in 1994-95 were actually spending more time with their father two years later. The figures in bold on the diagonal show the proportion of children in each situation who had roughly the same amount of contact with their father at the beginning and end of the period. The percentages above and to the right of the diagonal represent a decrease in time spent with the father; those below and to the left, an increase.[8]

Overall, among children living with their mother at the time of Cycle 1, 16 percent had more and 23 percent had less contact with their father (data not presented). For instance, among children with regular weekly or biweekly contact with their father in 1994‑95, three quarters still had frequent contact in 1996-97, and a small percentage had moved in with him. However, about 10 percent of these children had lost touch with their father, though the data do not enable us to establish the reason for this. At the other end of the scale, more than one fifth of children (7 percent and 15 percent) who were not in touch with their father in 1994-95 had some contact with him by 1996-97, although in the majority of cases this contact was sporadic.

To summarize, this analysis of changes in living arrangements and contact with father indicates the following.

  • Living arrangements for children in their father's custody are very durable. Nearly all children living with their father in 1994-95 were still in his care two years later. Although relatively infrequent (7 percent of children in 1994-95), the factors responsible for this type of arrangement appear to encourage its continuation.
  • Living arrangements for children in their mother's custody are also stable; the frequency of contact with their father, however, varies over time. Two fifths of the children who had some form of contact with their father at the start of the period had a different level by the end of it.
  • Shared living arrangements appear to be more flexible. Nine tenths of the children with shared living arrangements at the time of Cycle 1 had a different arrangement two years later. More than two fifths (41 percent) lived with their father, and half were with their mother; most of the latter maintained regular contact with their father.
  • Changes in levels of father-child contact are not unidirectional: two fifths of the changes represented more contact and three fifths less contact.
  • The absence of father-child contact is not necessarily permanent. More thanone fifth of children with no contact in 1994-95 had some form of contact (generally “irregular”) by 1996‑97.

In other words, the most consistent father-child contact is found at the two extremes, among children who live with their father and among those who have no contact with him. In between, there is a lot of movement, particularly among those with shared living arrangements. This situation is chosen by a growing minority of parents at separation (rarely entered into at a later date) and often evolves into a different form of custody after a number of years. Overall, the more frequent the contact with the father at the time of Cycle 1, the more frequent this contact remained two years later. The majority of children who lost contact with their father during the period had only intermittent contact with him at the start, although an almost equal proportion of the latter had a more solid relationship with their father by the end of the period.

4.2 Changes in child support payments

Child support is an important component in children's well-being following parental separation. Research shows a positive relationship between the payment of child support and children's educational attainment and other behaviour (Amato and Gilbreth, 1999; Argys et al., 1998; Bartfeld, 2000; McLanahan et al., 1994). However, only limited information is available about child support for the first two cycles of NLSCY. Respondents were asked whether or not they had a private or court-ordered support/maintenance agreement; those who had an agreement were asked how regular the support payments had been. In the absence of an agreement, or if the agreement was in progress at the time of survey, no direct information is available on the existence or regularity of support payments,[9] which makes changes in child support payments during the period difficult to assess. Already limiting the analysis of Cycle 1 data (Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999), this problem is magnified when attempting to assess the evolution between the two cycles. For instance, a sizeable proportion of individuals with an agreement in 1994-95 (and therefore a response to the question on the regularity of payments) stated two years later that they had no agreement or an agreement in progress (and therefore were not asked about the regularity of payments). For these cases, it is not possible to assess whether, and in what way, support payments changed during the period, because the absence of a support agreement does not necessarily imply the absence of child support payments. Among mothers reporting an agreement in progress, a relatively high proportion declared receiving some income from child support (34 percent and 48 percent at Cycles 1 and 2 respectively).[10] This proportion was much smaller for those without an agreement (6 percent and 8 percent at Cycles 1 and 2, respectively).

This problem reflects the changeable nature of child support arrangements over time, and although it imposes certain limitations, it does not prevent analysis of the question. Figure 12 compares the distribution of children whose parents were separated at the time of both cycles in terms of whether or not there was a support agreement, and how regularly payments had been made (four categories). In 1994-95, a support agreement existed for three fifths (60 percent) of the children of separated parents; for 9 percent, an agreement was in progress, and 31 percent were without an agreement. Payments were made regularly and punctually for one third of the children (33 percent), i.e. for more than half of the children with an agreement. In just under a quarter of cases in which an agreement existed, no payments had been made for at least six months before the survey. By 1996-97, the overall situation had improved to some extent, with the proportion of children with a support agreement rising from 60 percent to 68 percent. This did not always translate into maintenance support payments, however. While the percentage of children for whom payments were made regularly increased during the period, so did the proportion of those for whom no payment had been made in the past six months, from 14 percent to 17 percent. Moreover, almost one third of children were still declared either without a support agreement (28 percent) or with one in progress (4 percent).

Figure 12 - Distribution of children with parents separated before Cycle 1, according to whether a child support agreement exists and, when it does, the regularity of support payments, NLSCY, 1994-95 and 1996-97

However, a detailed look at the evolution of child support arrangements during the period reveals a much more complex and changing picture, largely concealed by these cross-sectional images. Table 10 shows the movement of children between child support categories during the two years separating the survey waves. As child support arrangements do not work in the same way for children in shared custody, and as mothers are much less likely to provide child support for children in their father's custody (Seltzer, 1994), this table includes only data related to children reported living with their mother at the time of both surveys.[11] In this table, the figures in bold on the diagonal show the proportion of children for whom the situation remained stable throughout the period. Among children for whom payments were regular and on time in 1994‑95, for example, this was still the case two years later for 71 percent of them. The proportions within the rectangle refer to children with a child support agreement at the time of both surveys, and for whom information on the regularity of payments was therefore available at the start and end of the period. Within this rectangle, figures above and to the right of the diagonal indicate a decline in the regularity of payments, while those below and to the left indicate greater regularity.

Table 10
Distribution of children living with their mother, according to the existence of a support agreement and the regularity of payments in 1994-95 and in 1996-97, NLSCY

Support agreement and payments in 1994-95
Distribution in 1994-1995 Support agreement and payments in 1996-1997
Regular, on time(%) Regular, at time late(%) Irregular (%) Not for at
least six1 (%)
N %
Private or court-ordered agreement, payments:            
regular, on time 486 31 71 10 3 8
regular, at times late 118 8 42 25 6 14
irregular 117 8 22 10 30 25
not for at least six months 1 233 15 9 3 14 54
No agreement 446 29 12 2 3 15
Agreement in progress 146 9 25 18 24 14
Distribution in 1996-97 1546 100 34 9 9 19

Support agreement
and payments in 1994-95
Distribution
in 1994-95
Support agreement and payments in 1996-97
No agreement
(%)
Agreement
in progress
(%)
Total
(%)
N %
Private or court-ordered agreement, payments:          
regular, on time 486 31 5 3 100
regular, at times late 118 8 14 0 100
irregular 117 8 4 9 100
not for at least six months 1 233 15 15 5 100
No agreement 446 29 65 3 100
Agreement in progress 146 9 10 8 100
Distribution in 1996-97 1546 100 25 4 100

1 Includes a small number of children for whom payments stopped due to “a change in circumstances”.

Overall, approximately 45 percent of children in their mother's custody moved from one child support “category” to another during the period, a proportion that varies depending on the type of arrangement in place in 1994‑95.[12] The most salient features of the evolution of child support during the period are the following.

  • Once the payment of regular and punctual support is established, it tends to continue. For more than 70 percent of children in this category in 1994-95, regular payments continued throughout the period. Only 11 percent no longer received regular support after two years (although this may also be true for some or most of the 8 percent of children without an agreement in 1996-97).
  • Receiving any kind of support, even if payments are late or irregular, is a positive sign. Late or intermittent support payments often become more regular with time. For almost one third of children receiving irregular payments in 1994-95, for example, payments became more reliable during the period (22 percent and 10 percent).
  • The absence of support payments is not necessarily permanent. More than a quarter of children (9 percent and 3 percent and 14 percent) who had received no support for at least six months in 1994-95 received some sort of payment in the interval. In almost half the instances, these payments were made regularly by 1996-97.
  • The absence of a support agreement is not necessarily permanent, although the chance of coming to an agreement later on is relatively low. Two thirds of children (65 percent) for whom there was no agreement in 1994-95 were in the same position two years later. Moreover, among those who had reached an agreement in the interval, fewer than half (12 percent and 2 percent) were receiving payments regularly in 1996-97.

4.3 Summary

As with levels of father-child contact, the support arrangements in place at one point in time have a strong influence on how the situation evolves. However, unlike father-child contact, the overall trend does not appear to be towards a lower level of commitment to a child's economic support. Among children with a support agreement at both dates, on average child support became more reliable over the period. However, this is offset to some extent by the sizeable proportion of children for whom the support agreement in place at the time of Cycle 1 was an agreement in name alone by the time of Cycle 2.

Evidently, the breadth of this analysis is limited by the data available. For the third cycle of NLSCY, extra information has been collected, including the following:

  • the reason for the absence of a child support agreement;
  • the type of agreement regarding child support for those with a private arrangement;
  • the means of payment of support (directly, through the court, enforcement program, etc.); and
  • the proportion of the awarded payments that were actually received.

This new information should not only provide a much better picture of the circumstances surrounding child support agreements and payments, it should also put us in a better position to evaluate the role played by family recomposition in the evolution of non-resident parents' investments in children.[13] While researchhas consistently shown a close association between the payment of child support and the contact maintained by fathers and their children, much less is known about how the arrival of stepparents, stepsiblings or half-siblings affects child support. One might expect that fathers uniting with a new partner might have less time and resources for their children, particularly if their new partner has children of her own or if they have had a child together. Also, for a non-resident father, it seems likely that the arrival of a new “father” in his children's life might trigger some change in the amount of time and money he is willing to invest. Relatively little data on the subject exists, but two recent studies have examined how new partners and children in the father's life affects investments in non-resident children (Manning and Smock, 1999; Smock and Manning, 2000). Their findings indicate that it is not the arrival of a new partner or her children in a man's life that reduces his investment in other biological children as much as the birth of additional children with the new partner. Future NLSCY data will be able to provide more insight into the impact that stepparents, stepsiblings and half-siblings have in the continuing relations between children and fathers.

Date modified: