Looking beyond the reformed scheme
Challenging questions
Expansions to challenging questions
The Beneficiary of Child Support
Escaping from the social security & civil service models
SSSC report & government response
Related topic - Can Child Support Agencies ever work?
Related topic - Where to read about the reform programme
Related topic - The 21st Century is making the reformed scheme obsolete
Related topic - The old-fashioned paradigm
Related topic - The "Shared Care" flaws in the reformed scheme
Home & weblog
Blog archive & site history
Site map & search

Can Child Support Agencies ever work?

It depends on what you mean by "work"! What are they for? (This is not always the same as what people think they are for or are told they are for!)

Ensuring that children are supported by their parents instead of by taxpayers

This is a classic reason, with typical questions such as "why should taxpayers pay for other people's children?" It applies more in some countries than others, depending on the extent to which the society feels that children are an individual responsibility or more of a social responsibility.

The UK is somewhere in between the USA, with its emphasis on individual responsibility, and some European countries, with more of a view that society has a large part to play. (And some countries see the family as a whole having a significant part to play). The more the parents have individual responsibility to pay, the higher the liability is likely to be, and the more parents there will be who simply can't afford to pay "their share".

And, of course, taxpayers do pay for other people's children! Apart from paying for the infrastructure (schools, etc), in the UK the state (taxpayers) pay Child Benefit, a universal benefit which even rich parents can claim. A response to the knee-jerk question "why should taxpayers pay for other people's children?" is "well, you've been doing so for years without too many complaints, so why stop now?"

In the UK's reformed scheme, perhaps three-quarters of NRPs won't earn enough for the formula to cause them pay half the regular payments for a single child. (That isn't saying they couldn't pay, but the force needed, with penalties and backlash, makes this impractical, or at least unwise politically). An even smaller proportion will earn enough to pay their share of 2 or more children.

However obvious this purpose is, it is not the only reason, and actually probably only has a minor part to play in the UK. The government will encourage people to take this attitude when it suits them, and will then simply give away lots of taxpayers' money for other people's children when it suits them to do that instead! For example, when Working Families Tax Credit replaced Family Credit, the government stopped trying to reduce the Treasury's bill (now the tax credit bill rather than the social security bill, but so what?) And the answer to "can the child support system achieve this?" is "rarely".

Reducing the social security / welfare bill

This is just a subset of "Ensuring that children are supported by their parents instead of by taxpayers" above. It is part of the way the Treasury views the same purpose, when it suits them. They may sometimes have different objectives that mean that this doesn't suit them. As noted above, when Working Families Tax Credit replaced Family Credit, the government stopped trying to reduce the Treasury's bill for that credit. This purpose was discarded because of a "higher" objective. It was worth (to the government) spending taxpayers' money on other people's children in order to get lone parents back to work, because of all the policy and economic advantages of that. (I am not aware of any consultation on this - it just happened in the Tax Credit legislation).

This is a narrower purpose than the above ("reduce" not "eliminate"), so the answer to "can the child support system achieve this?" is "often". This was the primary purpose of the current child support system, and after significant losses in the first few years, it is now being achieved overall. Whether it is enough for any specific purpose is a different matter - how much do you want to reduce it by?

Relieving child poverty

This interacts with the above purposes. One way of relieving child poverty is for the state itself to hand out lots of money to parents. Well, that solved that problem!

Governments don't want to do this, because they believe they won't get re-elected if they relieve child poverty this way. In the UK, the Child Benefit bill is about £8 billion - £9 billion per year. Small Fortunes found that Child Benefit paid about one-fifth of the average regular spending on a child. Increasing the spend to about £44 billion per year might just about pay for the children, but would be about 45% of the total social security bill, and the extra money would be about £600 per year for every person in the UK - which means a lot more than this for voter-taxpayers! No, they won't go for this - at least in one jump.

The degree to which this is acceptable depends on the society. In the USA the state / taxpayer support is relatively small compared with the UK, and voter-taxpayers want to keep their tax bill small. The UK has an intermediate position, with some European countries being willing to pay more per child. The USA tends to take a "moral" (in some sense) position, that it is the responsibility of the parents rather than the state to pay. This is somewhat true in the UK too, hence "why should taxpayers pay for other people's children?"

Can the problem be solved instead using child support rather than state benefits / welfare? This is similar to asking "can child support reduce the social security bill for lone parents to zero?" And the answer to "can the child support system achieve this?" is "rarely", for the same reasons. Most NRPs don't earn enough to pay sufficient to move their children out of poverty by themselves. At most it can only be one component of reducing child poverty.

Social engineering of various kinds

Is the child support system intended to change behavior rather than achieve a simple financial objective? There are various possibilities.

Helping / encouraging the PWC get to work

It wasn't established to do this, although having a £15 disregard in Familt Credit may have helped. The "child maintenance bonus" in the 1995 Child Support Act could have helped, but appears to have had little or no effect at all, and perhaps wasn't even understood by PWCs.

But having a total disregard in WFTC, combined with a more generous amount than Family Credit, plus New Deal for Lone Parents to help seek employment, means that child support can act as an incentive for people to move from Income Support to WFTC - it acts like an extra top-up in additoon to WFTC. This works when the NRP earns enough to pay a significant amount. Most don't.

Helping / encouraging the NRP get to work

If the rule was "pay £X per week whether you can afford it or not", this may be an incentive (or at least a big stick) to cause NRPs to earn enough to pay £X. (Although it is also an incentive for some of them to drop out, disappear, or commit suicide).

But a scheme where the liability is means-tested, with low earners paying (say) £5 or even nothing, while higher earners pay a substantial proportion of the cost of a child (or more), will result in a marginal increase in the rate of deductions as NRPs earn more which will act as a disincentive. When added to tax & NI, the results can be very discouraging.

Encouraging men and/or women to be more sexually responsible

Women - possibly not.

Men - possibly.

Encouraging parents to share the care of their children

Child support systems probably act against this.

Making people feel better

Making PWCs feel better

Some PWCs say something like "I want him to pay something, even if it is only £5 per week, so that I know he has an ongoing responsibility". Some want their children to know that the father is still paying. Whether or not these are good purposes, the child support will normally be able to achieve these.

Making members of society feel better

Ha!

Making children feel better

This would probably need changes to ensure that children knew fully about the child support.

Conclusion

In the last few years, I have moved from the typical childfree-taxpayer's view "why should I pay for other people's children?" to a realisation that every future UK government is going to force me to do so anyway! The real questions are - "how much?" (which may not vary a lot from one government to another) and "in what way?". The latter question is a key policy & political question. Will my taxes pay directly for the child's consumables, or will they instead provide infrastructure (childcare facilities, say) and incentives for the parents to earn more to take on more of their own responsibilities towards their children?

Economically active parents, net contributors to the Treasury, able to support their children themselves, setting a good example, buying services such as childcare which keep others employed too - this is an aim of most governments. It appears to be a worthwhile use of my taxes.

The child support system should be designed to help, or at least not hinder, both separated parents become (more) economically active. And when they are economically active, it should supplement the earnings of whoever cares for the children at any time to bring the child out of poverty. It should not be intended primarily to try to relieve child poverty on its own, because it won't succeed often enough.

This is similar to some government thinking, except for one key problem - the UK's child support system appears to inhibit, not help, an NRP become economically active. It tends to lead poor NRPs to the view "stuff it, why bother to try to earn more?"

Claimed reply to a CSA form:
"[name given] is the father of child A. If you do catch up with him can you ask him what he did with my AC/DC CDs?"

Page last updated: 17 December, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003