Child Support Policy across High-Income Countries: Similar Problems, Different Approaches

AuthorMia Hakovirta,Laura Cuesta,Mari Haapanen,Daniel R. Meyer
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterSupport from Nonresident Fathers
ANNALS, AAPSS, 702, July 2022 97
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221119959
Child Support
Policy across
We provide an overview of child support policy in high-
income countries, highlighting differences in institu-
tional arrangements, the amount of child support due,
and the amount of child support received. We show that
the United States expects high levels of child support
from nonresident parents when compared to other
countries, that noncompliance is a problem across coun-
tries, and that most European countries deal with non-
payment of child support by providing guarantees of
public support for children and resident parents. The
guarantee schemes vary in terms of eligibility and gener-
osity. Throughout, we find that child support policy
approaches differ across countries. A key policy implica-
tion from this review is that the United States may be
expecting too much child support from nonresident
parents and that it could consider guaranteeing a modest
amount of public support to single-parent households.
Keywords: child support; guaranteed child support;
advanced maintenance; single mother;
comparative policy; child poverty
The proportion of all families with children
headed by a single mother has been increas-
ing in many countries (e.g., Nieuwenhuis and
Maldonado 2018). Single mothers are among
the most vulnerable groups in many societies,
and they face a triple bind of inadequate
resources, employment challenges, and policies
that do not adequately support the well-being of
single mothers and their children (Nieuwenhuis
and Maldonado 2018). One policy that may
Mia Hakovirta is a senior research fellow at the Invest
Flagship, Department of Social Research, University of
Turku, Finland.
Laura Cuesta is an Assistant Professor of social work at
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
Mari Haapanen is a doctoral student at the Invest doc-
toral program, Department of Social Research,
University of Turku.
Daniel R. Meyer is a Professor of social work at the
University of Wisconsin–Madison.
improve the economic well-being of single mothers and their children is child sup-
port (child maintenance): a financial transfer between separated parents1 in which
one parent is obligated to transfer resources (money and/or in-kind resources) to
the other parent to share the costs of raising their children.
All high-income countries have child support policies, and a legal duty to pro-
vide for children is enshrined within the United Nations Convention on the
Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Article 27 contains not only a legal expectation for
parents to fulfil financial responsibilities to their children but also for countries
to ensure that children receive financial support from their separated parents.
Yet countries can do this in very different ways.
While the UNCRC implies that the goal of child support policy is ensuring
parental responsibility, countries can have other goals (e.g., addressing poverty,
recovering public expenditures in other social programs) that may lead to differ-
ences in policy approaches. Having multiple goals, which can sometimes be
conflicting, may also lead to variation in policy. For example, countries may want
both to limit public expenditures on single mothers and to encourage a father’s
relationship with his nonresident children. If the former is prioritized, child sup-
port orders may be high and public policy focused on enforcing obligations; while
if the latter is prioritized, child support orders may be an amount that parents
negotiate, which may be low, and public policy may focus on providing media-
tion, conflict resolution, and relationship building.2 Other factors associated with
policy choices include the level of economic development, gender roles in work
and caring, and the overall social policy structure (e.g., Chung and Kim 2019;
Cuesta and Meyer 2012; Hakovirta, Meyer, and Skinner 2021). Cultural values
such as individualistic or collectivistic beliefs on family responsibility may also be
relevant for understanding discrepancies in child support policy (Kang et al.
2022). Although there is a variety of research that describes child support policy
within a country, less research examines such policies across multiple countries.
We analyze child support policy across a variety of high-income countries,
exploring areas of similarity (particularly the central policy challenges that are
common across countries) and the ways in which countries’ approaches can be
different. The countries we include differ somewhat between sections of this arti-
cle, depending on available data, but they are mostly in Europe and also include
Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, the United States, and Uruguay. For
countries that have different policies in different jurisdictions, we select one unit
per country (Wisconsin for the United States, Ontario for Canada, and Catalonia
for Spain). When possible, based on the expertise of the national informants, we
generalize from the unit to the country. Because child support policy affects
repartnered parents as well as single parents, we sometimes refer to the broader
group of “custodial-parent” families. Although societal change toward more gen-
der neutrality in parenting roles has occurred, the vast majority of single-parent
households are still headed by women. For this reason, our focus in this article is
primarily on single-mother families and the nonresident fathers of their children.
NOTE: All authors conduct cross-national research on family and child support policy with a
focus on separated families and their economic well-being. Their work has been published in
leading academic journals on social policies and family change.

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