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Objectives of child support across nations & centuries

This page is being evolved as part of a long-term project.

Why do countries operate child support systems?

This is a matter that needs to be deduced from the history. But time after time the answer always appears to be for one or both (ultimately both) of the following objectives. Everything else is just detail.

  1. To reduce child poverty.
  2. To reduce welfare spending.

Perceptions depend on the order in which things are done. For example, suppose that the social security (welfare) programme makes the first move (eg. Income Support) in order to relieve child poverty, and child support is added later. (This is the typical sequence - in the USA AFDC came before the latest child support reforms).

Sequence Perception
First: Income Support tops up a lone parent's income to poverty relief levels. "Social security reduces child poverty."
Later: Child support dictates how much the other parent pays. It enforces this payment. The child support goes to the lone parent, but the Income Support is reduced by exactly the same amount. "Child support is a Treasury-driven exercise to reduce social security expenditure (hence taxes), even though this keeps children at poverty-relief levels."

But suppose things happened in a different order, and child support came first. (This does not normally happen. Child support tends to be an after-thought when nations realise they can't afford the full implications of social security / welfare without help from the other parents).

Sequence Perception
First: Child support dictates how much the other parent pays, and this goes to the lone parent. It enforces this payment. "Child support reduces child poverty."
Later: Income Support tops up the lone parent's income to poverty relief levels, taking child support payments fully into account by reducing social security by exactly the same amount. "Social security is a miserly spending programme, exploiting the child support system in a Treasury-driven way in order to reduce social security expenditure (hence taxes), even though this keeps children at poverty-relief levels."

The legal and financial end result is the same in both sequences. Only the perceptions differ. Child support is simply "child poverty reduction" and "welfare spending reduction" with a bad press, because it arrived later!

Anne Corden

Much of the material here on European child maintenance / support systems originated in Corden, which is recommended for anyone with a serious interest in the many different faces of such systems across Europe. Here are some results from this book:

"The countries studied were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK. Each regime developed from a different legal and historical background, but the general pattern has been towards equal treatment for all children in respect of child maintenance, irrespective of the marital status of their parents. There has also been increasing emphasis on the rights of the child, with the Nordic countries in the forefront of this approach.

"In several countries, child maintenance is due to the child, rather than to the resident parent as in the UK. The more child-centred approaches are those in which there has been furthest development of schemes to 'advance' and thus guarantee at least part of the maintenance due. In comparison with other European countries, maintenance is withdrawn at an early age in the UK. By contrast, child maintenance remains due through university education in Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands.

"Each country has different structural and administrative arrangements. Decisions about whether and how much child maintenance is payable are made variously by parents themselves (with or without help), by court judges or officials, or by administrative staff in social security or welfare offices. The courts have a greater role in maintenance determination in cases of divorce or separation in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Austria, although procedures may build upon preliminary voluntary arrangements made between parents. In Norway and Sweden, it is local social security staff who assess liability of non-resident parents to repay the state for advanced maintenance, and in Finland, determinations of maintenance are handled by the municipal social welfare boards.

"In terms of the criteria used, the regime in Denmark stands out as one without major problems or negative outcomes for any participant groups. The level of entitlement in Denmark is relatively low, but in the Danish universalist welfare state, where the emphasis in support for lone parents is on labour market participation and state support, levels of child maintenance are not controversial.

"The regimes in the other Nordic countries also 'work well' in terms of: delivering support to all children with a formal entitlement; the transparency of determinations and responsiveness to change in circumstances; the speed at which determinations are made; and the absence of constraint on resident parents' decisions to take work. However, these countries share with most others the problem that liability for child maintenance may introduce work disincentives for non-resident parents.

"Increasingly, in all countries, concern about relationships between parents, and between parents and children, is entering the debate about child maintenance. In all countries, there is much to learn about links perceived by parents between the maintenance due, their contacts with children and the way parents who live apart may share the care of their children."


Corden: Making child maintenance regimes work
Family Policy Studies Centre & Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Anne Corden
ISBN 1-901455-35-1

Page last updated: 7 July, 2004 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003