Abstract: The Role of Child Support Debt on the Development of Mental Health Problems Among Nonresident Fathers (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

The Role of Child Support Debt on the Development of Mental Health Problems Among Nonresident Fathers

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Hyunjoon Um, MSW, RA, Columbia University, Flushing, NY

The Office of Child Support Enforcement reports that as of 2016 the national child support debt grew to over $115 billion. A growing body of research has raised concerns that child support debts are detrimental not only to custodial mothers and children, but also to noncustodial fathers’ employment status and their involvement with children. However, previous studies have neglected to explore other significant consequences of the debt, particularly the impact on fathers’ mental health problems. Fathers’ inability to repay debts due to mental health problems could cause falling further behind in child support debt, resulting in more severe depressive symptoms. This paper examines whether the nonresident fathers with child support debts are at risk for depressive symptoms and alcohol abuse problems. Another goal of this paper is to investigate whether the presence of social support from friends and family can buffer or protect the fathers from the negative consequences of child support debt.


The study uses the first five waves of data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a longitudinal birth cohort study of approximately 5,000 children born into 20 large cities with populations over 200,000 in the United States between 1998 and 2000. The study uses 3,099 repeated observations (1,606 unique observations) of fathers who were not deceased or unknown but were not living with the mother of the focal child between 1 and 9 year follow-up survey. To control for fathers’ previous mental health status, a dynamic Probit model is used. As a robustness check, the study also uses an instrumental variable approach to avoid bias introduced by measurement errors in mothers’ reports of fathers’ child support debt.


The study finds that fathers who owe large arrears burdens are at high risk for development of depressive symptoms. For example, there is about 5.6 percentage point difference in probability of having depressive symptoms between fathers who owe child support debt versus fathers who do not owe any. These fathers are more likely to develop depressive symptoms if they do not receive social support from friends and family. Turning to the estimates for alcohol abuse problems, fathers with arrears are 6.7 percentage points more likely to develop alcohol abuse problem than those without the arrears. However, the existence of social support does not moderate the relationship between the arrears and the risk of alcohol abuse problems.


These findings align with the efforts from policymakers and researchers who have sought to find various strategies to reduce child support debts owed by noncustodial fathers. The study also provides strong evidence that any policies that improve social support can help fathers reduce their depressive symptoms.