Child maintenance policy at odds with public opinion

27 February 2015

Findings from the first in-depth study of the British public’s views about the child maintenance obligations of parents who do not live with their children show that most people believe the government should set and enforce child maintenance payments, and should require higher payments than those set by the current statutory formula.

The information was obtained though questions in the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey and the top-level results were reported in June 2013. The full findings have now been published by the Nuffield Foundation in a new report: Child maintenance: how would the British public calculate what the State should require parents to pay?

Key findings
  • On average, the amounts that the public thinks the law should require non-resident fathers to pay are higher than those set by the current statutory child maintenance formula.
  • The public views the role of child maintenance as going beyond simply keeping children from poverty: it expects non-resident fathers to provide amenities beyond a basic minimum, when they can afford to do so.
  • The amounts preferred by the public, unlike the current system, take the incomes of both parents into account, as well as the income of mothers’ new husbands.
  • Like the statutory formula, the public would require non-resident fathers who earn more to pay more in child maintenance. But, unlike the statutory formula (which uses a flat percentage to calculate maintenance obligations), the public adopts a more redistributive approach, with higher-earning fathers paying a higher percentage of their income in child maintenance.
  • Overall, the public would require child maintenance amounts which go further than the current statutory formula in reducing living standard differences between the households of separated parents.
  • The public makes little distinction, when setting child maintenance amounts, between fathers who had been married to the mother, cohabited with her, or who had never lived with her and their child.
  • The public does not think that a non-resident father’s maintenance obligation should be affected just because he has no contact with his child, but if told his lack of contact is attributable to the mother’s resistance, on average the public would require him to pay considerably less (but still something). Conversely, the public would require fathers to pay somewhat more if they chose to have no contact despite the mother having encouraged it.
  • On average, the public does not agree with the reduction in maintenance that the statutory formula makes when the child stays with the father for one night per week. For the child who spends an equal number of nights with each parent, the public would reduce the father’s maintenance obligation by less than half, unlike the statutory formula. The public’s views are consistent with the observation that the mother has fixed expenses, such as maintaining the home, that are not affected by the father’s increased time with the child.
British Social Attitudes Survey

As part of the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey, over 3,000 members of the British public were presented with a series of vignettes (cases) describing separated families with different financial and family circumstances. In all the vignettes, the mother was the parent with care, and the question was how much child maintenance, if any, the non-resident father should pay. People were asked to imagine that they were responsible for setting the amount of child maintenance that the law should require.

The researchers did not present any vignettes in which the mother was the non-resident parent, and so we cannot necessarily assume that the public would set the same child maintenance amounts were the parents’ roles reversed. Studies in the US found no significant difference between the maintenance amounts favoured when the parent with care was the mother or the father (Braver et al., 2014).

Public oppose move away from state intervention

The authors, Caroline Bryson, Ira Mark Ellman, Stephen McKay and Joanna Miles, discuss the findings in the context of the current changes to the statutory child maintenance system. These changes are focused on a move away from state intervention towards private arrangements between parents. The findings from this study indicate that this is not in line with public attitudes. If anything, the opposite is true; public opinion appears to favour greater state intervention in child maintenance, and most people support a more nuanced approach than the current statutory formula allows.