Child maintenance – learning the lessons and getting money to kids
Out of 2 million single parent households in the UK, there are around 750,000 single parents currently on benefit. Theirs are some of the most financially vulnerable families, for whom every penny counts. Today, Gingerbread launched a major new research report on child maintenance, which looks in depth at the maintenance situations of single parents claiming out-of-work benefits. While our research shows that there has been definite progress in recent years in getting more maintenance to children in these families, two thirds of single parents on benefit receive nothing from their child’s other parent.
Between 2007 and 2012, following a number of policy changes, the proportion of single parents on benefit that receive child maintenance increased from a quarter (24 per cent) to a third (36 per cent). Crucially, the research shows that maintenance – where paid – makes an enormous difference to these families, lifting one in five of those who receive it out of poverty. This is money that has a real impact on the quality of children’s lives; as one parent put it: “It means I can buy [my daughter] clothes as and when she needs them, without having to rob Peter to pay Paul”.
Two thirds receive no maintenance at all
Flip this statistic on its head, however, and you’re left with the stark fact that two thirds of single parents on benefit don’t receive any maintenance at all. This provides a clear imperative to work ever harder to ensure that more children receive the regular and reliable maintenance payments to which they are entitled.
The report therefore has some clear lessons for the government in light of their sweeping new reforms to the statutory child maintenance service which are being rolled out in the coming years. The cornerstone of the government’s reforms is the proposal to charge parents to access the statutory service, and to use these charges as a means of pushing more parents to make private maintenance arrangements instead.
The reality of private arrangements
Everyone can agree that private arrangements – where both parents take financial responsibility and make an agreement between them – may be the ideal solution. But for all too many single parents they are simply not sustainable, or in some cases even possible in the first place. How do you come to an amicable arrangement when you don’t know where your child’s other parent is, or when they refuse to speak to you about money?
While our research shows that the proportion of single parents on benefit who arrange payments privately increased five-fold – from four per cent to 20 per cent – between 2007 and 2012, it also shows that nearly double this number (37 per cent) still use the Child Support Agency (CSA) to arrange payments. What’s more, private arrangements are difficult to sustain over time – although four in ten single parents on benefit have had or tried to have a private arrangement at some point, half had since moved to having a CSA arrangement – or no arrangement at all.
A financial shock absorber
In this context, charging parents who are unable to agree a private arrangement, or whose private arrangement breaks down, will only serve to make the most vulnerable parents even poorer – either because they have no choice but to pay to use the new statutory system, or because they give up on child maintenance altogether.
At a time when child poverty is predicted to rise significantly over the coming decade, getting more maintenance to more children in more single parent households could play a hugely important role in mitigating against the financial shocks that are coming their way. But the government has to support parents in making the arrangement that is most likely to lead to maintenance being paid, not put barriers in their way.
‘Kids aren’t free: The child maintenance arrangements of single parents on benefit in 2012’ is a joint research study from Gingerbread, NatCen and Bryson Purdon Social Research, and was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. A summary briefing paper and the full report are available to download from www.gingerbread.org.uk and www.nuffieldfoundation.org