Abstract: Child Support, Shared Care and Inequality between Ex-Partners in 13 Countries (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Child Support, Shared Care and Inequality between Ex-Partners in 13 Countries

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Mia Hakovirta, PhD, Academic Researcher, University of Turku, Finland
Daniel Meyer, PhD, Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin - Madison, WI
Christine Skinner, PhD, Professor, University of York, United Kingdom
Background/Purpose: Shared care, in which children of separated parents spend roughly equal time with each parent, began as primarily an arrangement for divorcing couples in which both parents were employed. Child support was often ignored, perhaps because both parents were sharing caregiving or because it was assumed not necessary if parents had comparable incomes. Indeed, in 13 countries we have found that no child support would be ordered for median-earning parents with shared care in four countries, and relatively small amounts would be ordered in six countries. But as shared care has become more common, it is now no longer primarily for economically advantaged families, and child support orders may be more consequential for economic well-being. Yet we know little about how countries’ child support policies treat shared-care families with substantial inequality in income between the ex-partners.

In this paper we re-examine the 13 countries (including the US) and ask: (1)Is more child support expected when parents with shared care have substantially different incomes? (2)To what extent would ex-partner inequality be lowered if child support orders were fully paid in these cases? (3)In these cases, what is child support’s effect on gender equality?

Methods: We examine these questions using data on expected child support orders from expert informants for three scenarios in which parents share care equally. Scenario A (the base) has been studied in previous research: the father has median male full-time earnings and the mother has median female full-time earnings. In (new) Scenario B the father has median male earnings and the mother receives the benefits available to those unemployed. In Scenario C the mother has median female earnings and the father receives the benefits available to those unemployed. In each case we compare the amount expected to that of Scenario A. We present amounts graphically and use descriptive statistics.

Results: Comparing child support expectations when the father has more income than the mother (Scenario B) to Scenario A (both parents sex-specific median), we see that eight of the 13 countries expect more child support (decreasing inequality), and five expect approximately the same amount (leaving the inequality unaddressed). Comparing expectations when the mother has more income than the father (Scenario C) to Scenario A, approximately the same amount is expected in seven countries (leaving inequality unaddressed), and less is expected in six countries (decreasing inequality). Gender matters: in fact, in two countries the father owes the mother support in Scenario C, even though he has substantially lower income and they share time equally, exacerbating inequality.

Conclusions and Implications: We find widely varying responses across countries in the extent to which child support orders are used to decrease inequality between ex- partners when care is shared. We discuss how different family policy models, gender expectations, and gender inequality in earnings, come together in how child support is organized in a society. We offer policy suggestions for how child support could be treated in these cases that would not increase ex-partner inequality, while paying attention to gender equality.