In this section we describe the informants’ accounts of the original policy principles (the explicit or implicit policy goals) that operated in child support systems before 2006Footnote 1 and the current objectives they have identified as being important in 2017. A lot of policy activity has taken place since 2006 and the data is presented in Table 12.3. Somewhat uniquely, Iceland reported no changes since 2006 and was therefore described as being policy inactive. The first column is a summary of the data as reported by informants. The second includes emergent policy principles
as identified by the authors in their interpretation of the informants’ reports of policy objectives operating prior to 2006. The last two columns report changes since 2006, firstly presenting informant’s views followed by the authors’ interpretations of emergent policy principles
arising from that.Footnote 2 For ease, we keep the countries organized in Table 12.3 by the three types of child support systems (agency, court, and hybrid). We show these two perspectives (the informants’ accounts and the authors’ analysis of emergent themes arising from those accounts) to enhance the rigor of the analysis and to be as transparent as possible. In the text however, we only discuss the findings of the emergent policy principles
The set of emergent policy principles are grouped under the broader theme of “child’s rights and enforcement” and these are: parental duty, child’s rights, poverty alleviation, and enforcement. We discuss these first before moving to our analysis in the next section which explores whether systems are reacting to social change and perceived trends in greater gender equality in parenting.
Child’s Rights and Enforcement
Parental duty is the most common policy principle identified across all counties as occurring within the original manifestation of child support systems, such as where a “legal duty or obligation” is set for separated parents to continue to support their children post-separation. Some country informants specify the exact nature of parental duties as being split into health, education, and finances while others are less specific. Two informants (Norway and New Zealand) noted that the principles stressed the permanence of the parental duty; that it could not be revoked by parents’ remarrying or repartnering. Germany noted that since 2008 all children were now treated equally, regardless of their parent’s marital status (previously children were treated differently depending on whether their parents were legally married or cohabiting). Germany was exceptional among the countries studied here, but is now aligned in treating the parental duties of all types of parents equally.
In regard to child support being a child’s right this was explicitly identified in seven countries (Australia, Belgium, Estonia, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the US [Wisconsin]), but generally only in the original manifestation of the systems. It was not mentioned as an important policy change or principle post 2006. Even so a child’s right was captured in a number of different ways including: through direct reference to upholding the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (Estonia); through the use of assessment tools that based child support calculations on the cost of a child standard (Australia); or through the principle that children’s “standard of living” should not be affected by separation U.S. (Wisconsin), that their living standard should be maintained (Belgium) or that the children had a right to share in their parents’ standard of living post-separation even if that standard increased (Sweden and Australia).
There are subtle differences across the principles with regard to a child’s standard of living: one that aims to tie a child’s right to a standardized “cost of the child” assessment; one that aims to protect children from a fall in their living standards post-separation; and another that enables them to share in any future prosperity of their parents. There was also a small set of changes that did occur post 2006 that could be regarded as relating to maintaining a child’s standard of living; index linking child support payments. This was mentioned in Australia, where the minimal amount of child support was index linked to the Consumer Price Index and in Finland where all child support was index linked to living costs.
Another aspect of policy that might relate to the principle of ensuring a child’s right, is setting a universal minimum amount of child support. This was mentioned by Iceland as an original principle pre-2006 and also that child support belonged to children; the parents were expected to spend it only on children. In relation to a child’s right to have the child support spent on them, Australia also discussed how changes post-2006 increased the proportion of child support children could receive directly from the paying parent (up to nearly a third of the child support). This principle of direct pay to children could conceivably relate to theories of the “new sociology of childhood” in which children are seen as independent actors and capable of taking charge of their own support money. Alternatively, it could be argued it is a means by which fathers can bypass mothers’ control over the spending of child support. This is something that fathers in Anglo-Saxon countries have raised concerns about (Cook & Natalier, 2013; Skinner, 2013). In any event, this analysis demonstrates a range of ways that a principle of a “child’s right” could be manifest and regarded as important. This is different to another policy principle that emerged from the data, that child support should alleviate poverty.
Poverty alleviation emerged as an important early policy principle and was described in different ways by eight informants as being part of their child support systems before 2006 (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden, and the US). For some it was described as an explicit policy goal and for others it was more implicit. A key aspect of child support systems was the operation of advanced or guaranteed support. Among these eight countries, all but the US and Belgium operated such schemes. All the Nordic countries mentioned it in relation to poverty alleviation (bar Iceland, which did not, although it too has a guaranteed support scheme). The guaranteed/advanced schemes operated in a range of different ways: it could be universally available to all parents with care who claimed it, or available only to single parents with care; it could be for a flat rate amount or means tested. There is not enough scope here to describe the specifics of different schemes; suffice to say, they were mentioned by some informants in relation to a principle of alleviating poverty pre-2006 and were most common in Nordic countries. Finally, of interest is New Zealand, in which poverty alleviation was said never to be a goal of the child support system, but rather the goal of welfare benefits and tax credits. So here is one country at least, where the principle of poverty alleviation was reported as not belonging to child support policy.
For policy changes post-2006, three informants mentioned that poverty alleviation was an important principle (the UK, France, and Poland). This does not mean to say it was unimportant in other countries, but from the insider informant perspective it was not mentioned as salient currently. For Poland however, poverty alleviation was highly important both pre- and post-2006. As the informant explained, this was because Poland tried to abolish their guaranteed support scheme in 2004 replacing it with a new social security benefit for single parent families. However, after “mass social protests from a new social movement of single mothers” it was reinstated in 2007, although in a much more limited way than previously.
Clearly for Poland, poverty among single parent families was highly politicized. For the UK and France however, poverty alleviation seemed to emerge mostly as a principle post-2006. In France, it emerged implicitly as a result of complex changes to the ways in which single parents’ entitlements to social security benefits were established and in turn how this interacted with “fixing the amounts” of child support. The informant notes there is not enough information about the payment of child support in France, and since 2016, the authorities have become more interested in improving effectiveness of policies to alleviate poverty in single parent families. In contrast in the UK, poverty alleviation was not an explicit policy objective when the Child Support Agency (CSA) was set up in 1993 (though it was widely regarded as being implicit). It was not until 2008 did it become one of four explicit objectives following major reforms which replaced the CSA and returned child support obligations back into the hands of parents. Ironically therefore, the state made an explicit claim of poverty reduction at a time when it withdrew from taking responsibility for ensuring child support was paid. This highlights how policy principles are differentiated from policy operations and how they can be inconsistent with one another. We note, however, that some country’s child support systems are better than others at helping alleviate child poverty. We briefly discuss that evidence here.
Evidence from other comparative studies shows that child support is associated with a decrease in poverty among single mother families within a variety of countries; that is when it is paid (Cuesta, Hakovirta, & Jokela, 2018; Hakovirta, 2011; Hakovirta, Meyer, & Skinner, 2019). For example, in the UK and Australia child support payments reduced poverty among single mother families, respectively, by 14 percentage points and 21 percentage points (Skinner, Cook, & Sinclair, 2017). In attempting to reduce child poverty however, one key problem for child support systems is dealing with non-compliance because failure to do so can reduce the effectiveness of child support. Certainly, not all eligible single mothers receive payments from the other parent. The highest rate of receipt is in countries where the state guarantees child support when the non-resident parent does not pay. Comparing Finland’s system (which has a guaranteed scheme) with the UK and the US helps demonstrate this. In Finland 77% of single mothers received child support in 2013, but in the UK and the US only one third did (Hakovirta et al., 2019). Yet, even if compliance rates are high, another hidden problem has recently come to light which shows how the anti-poverty effectiveness of child support is disrupted by the interactions between child support payments and social security benefits (Hakovirta et al., 2019; Skinner et al., 2017).
The effects of the interactions mean that in some of the 15 countries discussed here, we know that child support payments are treated as a substitute for social security benefits leaving single parents no better off financially. This is because the state recovers the child support money through various mechanisms, effectively capping single mothers’ incomes at the level of the social security benefits they receive. This capping effect appears to operate in New Zealand when assessed using model families (Skinner et al., 2017) and for Finland and Germany when assessed using Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) data on actual recorded child support payments in real families (Hakovirta et al., 2019). In contrast, the UK stands out as it treats all child support payments as a complement to social assistance benefits, meaning it can act as a top up to single parent incomes above social security benefit levels, but note only if it is paid (Hakovirta et al., 2019). Similarly, in Australia single parents can keep nearly all of the child support, again if it is paid (Hakovirta et al., 2019). Therefore, while poverty alleviation is an important policy principle and operationally some countries child support systems appear to be more effective than others, we can see that enforcement could be an integral part of poverty alleviation and an important part of maintaining child rights.
Only three informants however, emphasized enforcement as being particularly important (France, Poland, and Estonia). For France looking at the changes over time pre- and post-2006, enforcement was described as being originally set within the civil legislation to uphold parents’ liabilities. Whereas in 2016 the emphasis changed; enforcement also became part of the social security benefit reforms mentioned earlier under poverty alleviation. The social security system was now able to enforce “simple” child support agreements made between parents. So again, for France we see how child support obligations interacted in complex ways with social security entitlements, especially for poorer single parent families. It seemed however, that despite the complexity, they were trying to find better ways of enforcing payments.
Similarly in Poland, the child support system emphasized enforcement as an explicit policy principle, though perhaps in stronger terms than reported in France. From its inception, the child support system reportedly set out to make non-payment “socially unacceptable,” making it a criminal offense to not pay. Later, a new act in 2015 required local authorities to add the names of non-payers into a “National Debt Registry” to better enforce prosecution. However, the wording of the act was amended in 2017 to ensure that non-payers were given the chance to pay off their debts, rather than be fined, or imprisoned as the first course of action. For Estonia, debates regarding improving enforcement measures arose more recently in 2008 and were reemphasized by the new government in 2015. New policy measures ensued and in 2016 penalties for non-payment (such as revoking certain licenses for hunting, driving, and gun ownership) were increased. Additionally, bailiffs were given greater powers to remain in contact with non-payers so assets could be seized should they persistently not pay. Overall, France, Poland, and Estonia appeared to share similarities: all three were court-based systems and the policy emphasis shifted toward encouraging payments, rather than simply punishing non-payment (especially evident in Poland).
In sum, the analysis highlighting emergent policy principles across countries are all acting to protect children’s rights, in one way or another. But we found other sets of principles which related more to how systems dealt with parental responsibilities in terms of recognizing paternal care/shared care arrangements or maternal employment or incomes. To which we now turn.
As discussed above, one of the key aims of the analysis of this comparative data was to ascertain whether key social changes in families, such as greater equality in parenting responsibilities, were being reflected in child support systems. Certainly, gender equality is manifest in calls from separated parents and others for more equal “joint physical custody” arrangements post-separation (Hakovirta & Skinner, 2021). However, informants were not directly asked about gender equality. We have therefore used any explicit mention of gender equality (where it occurred spontaneously in responses in the first part of the questionnaire) alongside our analysis of informants’ reports on the importance of systems taking account of shared care/paternal care and mothers’ employment/incomes in determining child support liabilities.
Recognition of Paternal Care
When informants were asked to describe the main policy principles of their systems, a few explicitly mentioned gender equality as being particularly important. As shown in columns three and four in Table 12.3 these countries were Australia, New Zealand, and Norway. Overall six informants mentioned recognition of paternal care/shared care as being an important policy principle. This recognition occurred more often after 2006. For example, only New Zealand and Norway mentioned paternal/shared care as important both pre-2006 and post-2006, and four other countries mentioned it only after 2006 (Australia, Estonia, Finland, Spain [Catalonia]).
New Zealand reported having an original policy goal of equity between parents in which paternal care was recognized and this was later strengthened following public consultation and the development of a new act in 2013. This act altered the child support formula to reflect the apparent increase in care contributions made by separated fathers, but it also recognized the rising rates of maternal employment (discussed further below). Similarly for Norway, they strengthened their position of treating mothers and fathers equally post-2006 (see discussion on maternal employment below). In Australia, major reforms in 2008 reportedly emphasized fathers’ contribution to care more strongly and indeed waived child support liabilities for low income fathers who remained in contact with their children post-separation. Reforms also recognized the increased participation rates of mothers in the labor market (discussed below). In Estonia’s court-based system, paternal care recognition was said to occur within a legal framing, with the introduction of a new family law act in 2010 stipulating more clearly the definition of custody and the obligations of both parents to care for their children. In Finland suggestions were made in 2016 that shared care arrangements be added into child custody laws. Whereas for Spain (Catalonia), assumptions around shared care were introduced for the first time in divorce legislation in 2005 and while it was thought this would have little effect, a legal presumption of shared care spread across a number of northern regions in Spain with new laws enacted in 2010.
What emerges from these accounts is differences in the way informants in the six countries talked about recognition of paternal care, with those in Court or hybrid systems (Estonia, Finland, and Spain [Catalonia]) tending to refer to debates around “custody” and shared care within family law. Whereas in New Zealand, Australia, and Norway these are agency-based systems, and these informants tended to report changes in the child support formula made to better recognize paternal care. Either way, recognition of paternal or shared care has been reported as an important part of the policy principles either as a source of debate, or of policy change in child support systems for six of the fifteen countries. This indicates at least some recognition of changing social norms and associated trends in gender equality. Closely related to recognition of paternal care, is recognition of mothers’ increased capacity to have independent incomes through paid employment.
Recognition of Maternal Income and Employment
As mentioned above, gender equality was a strong principle mentioned explicitly only in informants’ accounts from Australia, New Zealand, and Norway, though there were differences. In New Zealand, it seemed they adopted a principle of gender equality early on, whereas in Australia it was embedded in debates that took place around the 2008 policy reforms. Policy debates in Australia acknowledged mothers’ increased participation in the labor market, and the possibility at least, of mothers gaining independent incomes from earnings. This resulted in mothers’ incomes being included in a new “incomes share” formula for calculating child support. It is important to note at this point that other countries may also have counted mothers’ incomes in their calculations, but what we are reporting here are the informants’ perspectives of their main policy objectives and not providing a detailed administrative account of all operational features.
In Norway too, gender equality was mentioned as a strong principle in regard to the acknowledgment of trends in maternal employment; policy debates there focused on separated parents both having equal care and equal financial responsibilities. Norway has taken this principle further by using child support policy to manipulate parental behaviors in the labor market. For example, the informant reported that when calculating child support, if the mother is unemployed, an “imputed” earnings figure is applied to the child support calculation and this is done to encourage her participation in employment. But it is also done to protect fathers from having “undue” support costs being passed onto them as a result of mothers choosing to “opt out” of the labor market. This implies that the movement in and out of the labor market for separated mothers in Norway is seen as a free choice they can make. Whether or not this policy assumption reflects the reality of Norwegian mothers’ capacity and freedom to enter the labor market, it is important to note that Norway has a largely privatized child support system and parents can agree to have no child support arrangement if they so wish. So, gender equality based principles (and related operational tools) are only applicable when separated parents choose to use the formal system (for which they pay a fee) or where the parent with primary care seeks guaranteed child support from the state. But what does all this mean? What can we say about gender equality and child support systems? We now discuss that in our conclusion.