UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Fifty-two.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: 11:52.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Twenty-five.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: 6.115.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Time for some number crunching from our data expert Mona Chalabi from fivethirtyeight.com. And she has given us this number of the week.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: $14.3 billion.
MARTIN: That is the total amount of unpaid child support in the United States in the year 2011. Mona Chalabi joins us from our studios in New York to unpack this number. Hey, Mona.
MONA CHALABI: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So that's a huge amount of unpaid child support. What do we know about how many parents are affected, and who are they?
CHALABI: Well, we actually know quite a bit. So the spreadsheet I'm looking at here comes from the Census Bureau in 2011. That's the most recent year that we have. And they provide a pretty specific definition of custodial parents. Those are parents that are taking care of their kids while the other parent lives someplace else.
CHALABI: And we can see which of those parents have been awarded child support, and whether they're actually getting the payments that they're due. And it also tells us - and this might actually be more important - about the race, marital status and gender of those parents. And I started off by looking at gender because a reader had actually sent me an email saying that he thought moms are worse at paying child support than dads.
MARTIN: Moms were worse. That kind of flies in the face of what we presume to be a common understanding of this, right?
CHALABI: Yeah, it's a pretty surprising assumption. And what's even more surprising is the fact that this reader was right.
MARTIN: He was right. So what evidence did you find to support that?
CHALABI: Yeah. I was surprised too. So in 2011, we found that 32 percent of custodial fathers didn't receive any of the child support that had been awarded to them compared to 25 percent of custodial moms. Now the first and most obvious thing to say about all of this is that there are way more custodial moms in America than custodial dads. They actually outnumber them 5 to 1. And on top of that, moms are also more likely than dads to get awarded child support. But still...
MARTIN: In the first place.
CHALABI: Exactly. Yeah. But still, the data shows that moms are more likely than dads to get at least some of the child support that they're due. It's not a huge difference in percentage terms, but it's still kind of counterintuitive. At least it was to me.
MARTIN: Yeah. So why is this happening? Any guesses or evidence-based theories to explain why dads are getting short shrift?
CHALABI: So we don't really know because the Census Bureau doesn't kind of provide concrete reasons for that. But the data that they do have kind of suggests some possible explanations we can put out there. The first of which is that custodial dads have a much higher average household income than custodial moms. So their average household income is $52,000 compared to about $26,000 for custodial moms. And they're half as likely to living in poverty. So one possible explanation we can draw from that is that these dads that have a higher income might be less likely to be pursuing child-support payments from the noncustodial mothers.
One other possible theory here comes from a lady called Cynthia Osborne, who I spoke to earlier this week. She's the director of the Child and Family Research partnership at the University of Texas at Austin. And she kind of suggested to me that for a father to become the custodial parent, very often the mother might not be in a particularly good position. She might be struggling to find work. She might have drug problems. There can be all kind of issues there. And so she suggested that that might play into the ability of those noncustodial mothers to actually make those child-support payments. And that might explain what they're basically worse at paying up for custodial dads.
MARTIN: So did you notice any other factors? I mean, we've talked about gender. But anything else that you discovered that might affect the chances of getting child support?
CHALABI: Yeah. The data looks like marital status appears to have a little bit of an effect here, not only on the chances of being awarded child support in the first place, but also eventually receiving those payments. So we saw in the data that custodial moms and custodial dads who have never been married are much less likely to get any of the payments they're due. I don't think this is about kind of like being on good terms or whatever. The fact that divorcees are more likely to receive their child-support payments than people who have never been married could be because of all kinds of other factors. It could be because divorcees are more likely to be older or because they're more likely to be wealthier. We just don't know. All we can see is that kind of marital status difference.
MARTIN: Mona Chalabi with fivethirtyeight.com talking about our number of the week. Thanks so much, Mona.
CHALABI: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.