Abstract: Child Support Policy Rhetoric: A Comparison of Logics in Four Countries (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Child Support Policy Rhetoric: A Comparison of Logics in Four Countries

Friday, January 18, 2019: 10:15 AM
Union Square 22 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Kay Cook, PhD, Associate Professor, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia
Michael Fletcher, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand
Daniel Meyer, PhD, Professor, University of Wisconsin - Madison, Madison, WI
Christine Skinner, PhD, Professor, University of York, United Kingdom
Background/purpose: Child support (money from one parent to the other to support children following relationship dissolution) is a contentious policy in many countries. Many non-resident parents feel they are being ordered to pay unreasonably high amounts, while many resident parents feel that payments are unreasonably low. These tensions may be because it is unclear whether the purpose of child support is to enforce parental responsibility, prevent poverty, or limit government benefit expenditures. Examining the logic governments use to discuss policy can: reveal the purpose of the scheme; expose inconsistencies between government rhetoric and how the system works for families; and lead to policy change. We examine the child support logics espoused by four seemingly similar countries: USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand to reveal how each country conceptualises child support, the logics that exist within and across countries, and how rhetoric compares to the policy reality.

Methods: To examine the framing of child support, we retrieved the most recent, publicly available government documents from each country and entered them into the software program, ‘Wmatrix’. Using this program, we compared the rhetorical devices used in each country’s corpus of texts to provide instances where the rhetoric was either largely consistent or dissimilar across the four countries. Following the methods of discursive institutionalism, the investigators then interpreted these discourses given the unique policy settings that exist in each country.

Results: The four countries share similar policy origins, and all highlight child support’s role in lessening poverty. However, the four countries diverge considerably with respect to their policy goal, as revealed by the way child support interacts with welfare benefits. For example, in New Zealand, all child support payments are retained by the state if the resident parent is a benefit recipient, limiting the effect on poverty. Conversely, the UK has little role in determining obligation amounts (beyond offering guidance) and plays almost no role in transferring payments or in enforcing payments, unless parents choose to opt-in and pay fees for collection and enforcement services. However, all money received is retained by the recipient. Australia typically assumes full child support compliance irrespective of payment reality, which reduces government benefit outlays and resident parents’ incomes. Finally, while US states set policy for how much support benefit recipients can keep, states are being encouraged to lower obligations for low-income non-resident parents. Our analysis shows that the rhetoric supporting child support policy has some similarities across countries and some consistencies with the policies in place, but in part the rhetoric is disconnected from the actual policy effects.

Conclusions/Implications: The rhetoric justifying child support policy is relatively similar across these countries; however, the policies have important differences. One implication for policymakers is that administrative tools from one context cannot easily or unproblematically be implemented in another context without considering the system’s inherent logic. Researchers also need to examine a policy’s actual effects; not merely be content the stated goals are achieved.