Methods: The data come from matched administrative datasets: Wisconsin Court Record data (providing demographic information on fathers, mothers and children in divorce and paternity cases), Wisconsin income tax data, and earnings information from the Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance system. The sample includes approximately 1,100 divorced fathers and 1,200 nonmarital fathers, all of whom had court petitions between 1996 and 2001. The mean and distribution of personal income and earnings of divorced fathers and nonmarital fathers were computed separately in the years before the final divorce judgment or paternity establishment and up to five years after. On the basis of personal income drawn from the tax data, the proportion of fathers under the official poverty line was also calculated. A descriptive multivariate panel analysis explores the characteristics of those whose incomes change the most.
Results: Results from the recent cohort show substantially different results than the earlier study in terms of income levels and trends. The previous study found that mean incomes increased substantially over time for both divorced and nonmarital fathers; in contrast we find only a moderate increase for nonmarital fathers and a slight decrease for divorced fathers. The poverty rate of both groups of fathers is higher than the earlier study, and, in contrast to the earlier study, increase over time. Similar to the previous results, divorced fathers have substantially higher levels of income than fathers of nonmarital births, but the rate of change is higher for fathers of nonmarital births.
Conclusions and Implications: Our descriptive analysis suggests that the economic situation of nonresident fathers is substantially worse in recent cohorts than it was in the 1980s. This has obvious implications for the level of child support we can expect, an important issue for the economic well-being of poor children. Two types of policies are implied: policy efforts that support low-income fathers in finding and sustaining work and paying child support, and policy efforts directed at improving the economic well-being of single-parent families outside the child support system.