Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tracking the wild bad data

As someone who spent 3 years studying family dynamics in grad school, I was pretty interested in the NYT piece that ran last week on class divides in single vs married households.  The article generated a lot of buzz, and if you haven't read it, I would recommend it.

People seemed to either love or hate this article, and it's stirred up a whole lot of discussion online.  One of the more interesting points that got brought up though, was a discussion about why the focus was on single moms as opposed to deadbeat dads.

This led to some quoting of an interesting statistic regarding custodial parents and child support.  When I first read this statistic, it was from Amanda Marcotte over at Slate who put it this way:
.... in a substantial number of cases, the men just quit their families. That's why only 41 percent of custodial parents receive child support.
Now, I've perused internet comment boards enough to know that there are a LOT of men out there griping about how much they pay in child support.  I was a little shocked to read that apparently 59% don't give anything.  I clicked on the closest link she had provided.....which took me over to the NYT Economix blog and an item by Nancy Folbre. There was the stat again, except with a few more qualifiers:
In 2009, the latest year for which data are available, only about 41 percent of custodial parents (predominantly women) received the child support they were owed. Some biological dads were deadbeats. 
So that frames it a little differently.  It's still a little unclear from that statement, but it started to occur to me that this probably meant only 41% were up to date on their support payments...not that only 41% of non-custodial parents were paying.

I clicked on the link provided by Folbre, and got to the Census Bureau website, which put it all this way:
 In 2009, 41.2 percent of custodial parents received the full amount of child support owed them, down from 46.8 percent in 2007, according to a report released today by the U.S. Census Bureau. The proportion of these parents who were owed child support payments and who received any amount at all — either full or partial — declined from 76.3 percent to 70.8 percent over the period.
Now that's still a lot of deadbeats, but it is a slightly different picture from the one we originally started with.  When I clicked on the link from the Census Bureau snapshot to the report it originally came from, I noticed something else interesting....only about half of all custodial parents have court ordered support, and the non-payment stats above appear to reflect only what is happening in the court ordered cases.  The non court ordered cases are certainly hazy....30% of custodial parents said they never went to court because they knew the other person couldn't pay....but it is interesting that the quoted stats only apply to half of the custodial parent cases.

Overall, I must say I kind of enjoyed attempting tracking the evolution of a stat (in reverse).  It's not often you get to actually see how things evolve from the primary source to several steps out....and it was an interesting mental exercise.  Thanks for taking the journey with me.


  1. Ah, the life of the mother to be = posting at 4 AM.

    Having done a fair amount of family law during my 13 years in private practice, I experienced the evolution of child support payments. When I first practiced, payments were on the honor system with the court for enforcement purposes. One of the tools was a wage assignment. During the next 13 years, it went from the honor system to mandatory wage assignment. The main weakness with wage assignment is that the paying spouse needs to be on a payroll. So, the self employed, work under the table person can avoid the responsibility. However, they don't avoid the debt and child support is generally not dischargeable in bankruptcy.

    So, the ones who aren't paying are either unemployed or their income is untraceable. As for the ones who say they didn't ask for it in the first instance are likely unmarried.

  2. That's why only 41 percent of custodial parents receive child support.

    In 2009, 41.2 percent of custodial parents received the full amount of child support owed them.

    Big difference. Good catch.

    I get the impression that Amanda Marcotte didn't know the difference. She wasn't being deceitful- just ignorant. I am of the opinion that libs are more number-challenged than wingnuts. Looking at numbers was a factor in changing me from a lib to a wingnut.

    Example. I started grad school after working 4 years in the stagflation era, where inflation could kick you up to a higher tax bracket without your earning any more pre-tax income in real terms. In a conversation with my roommate my first semester in grad school, I pointed this out. The reply: "That's a very right wing way of thinking."

    I thought to myself : so be it.

    1. Yeah, I figured it was a moment of tossing a number in to make it look like you weren't just repeating your own narrative. Ah well.

      Your "conversion story" makes me laugh.

  3. The information looks so different when you track it down, and decipher it's meaning within the population sampled.

    I had a similar response after I thought about one of the claims from the early days of the War on Drugs.

    You see, there were lots of claims that Marijuana was a gateway drug. A very high number of people who smoked crack or snorted cocaine had originally smoked weed.

    When I constructed the Venn diagram in my head, I noticed an un-mentioned category. The people who had smoked weed and never gone on to harder drugs is unmentioned and unenumerated.

    Without that number, we can't quantify the gateway factor. We don't know what percentage of people who start smoking weed end up in harder drugs.

    (This discussion can be had entirely separate from the question of whether marijuana belongs on the FDA's Controlled Substance list; or whether any other narcotic belongs on that list.)

    1. Yes, most of these conversations should be had separate from the policies they effect. I can't stand it when people act like the policy should influence the acceptance of the data.