How to have a working Child Support system.
I have been on both sides of the NZ child support system. It is a system that has completely failed by any useful measure. It is an income tax on some people based on their marital status which has nothing to do with supporting children.
However the problems with it run much deeper than that. Most importantly, it is a completely failed system by any objective measure. Successive attempts to keep the system working have only seen it side further into failure.
Imagine any other tax system that was such a complete failure as NZ child support! The legislation would be scrapped within weeks. I am in fact amazed the entire system hasn’t already collapsed under it’s own weight of failure.
I have given this a lot of thought and realised our failed system comes from failing to comprehend the fundamental nature of parenting.
The entire basis of the NZ child support system is fundamentally flawed.
We need to move away from the current system – designed to re-distribute wealth – to a system that allows parents to make their own parenting decisions.
We need to consider that most parents respond positively to being treated positively as parents.
The current system is by any measure a complete failure. The most recent changes are yet another tinkering with the same fundamentally flawed system. We need to be realistic and have a system in place that actually works rather than one based on ideology. We need to stop trying to fit a system into some people’s idea of “fair” when the current system is plainly quite unfair to many and more importantly, is a total failure.
In particular we need to create incentives for parents to share the care of their children, wherever possible. And where not, to at least empower them to have some influence on their children’s lives.
Removing or diminishing parents power to influence their children’s lives results in poor outcomes for most children. Worse than that it promotes a negative spiral for future generations. It removes or diminishes incentives to take a positive attitude to supporting children and creates incentives to make less than ideal parenting choices. Children experience these poor choices and hence have a less than ideal experience of parenting to pass on to the next generation.
We can have a workable system, if we are prepared to be realistic about what is workable and if we treat all parents as parents with the power to make parenting decisions. The difficult task is that we have to place this outcome above an ideology. Something that will require political backbone.
First we need to accept that in reality there are 2 parts to supporting any child.
First there are the very basic necessities that are not already provided by the state.
This first part needs to be split between separated parents. For example, one of the biggest costs is housing. Even if the child is only with one parent a few weeks out of the year, this housing has to be provided for the child in both households. Whereas in that situation the food bill is obviously going to be worn mostly by one parent. In other cases the care and hence basic costs are shared more or less evenly regardless of other circumstances in the household.
This first part should be the compulsory part. These are the costs of very basic needs of the child. This basic cost should be split by some variable percentage depending on how the care is divided between the two households.
This compulsory part, is not intended to be a lot of money. It is not intended to refund the state for whatever policies the government of the day has implemented. It is not intended to be some “fair” redistribution of wealth. It is simply there as a backstop to ensure the child gets the basics not already provided by the state.
The second part is a voluntary part.
In this part we have to acknowledge that parents make parenting decisions, every minute of every day. Sometimes they make parenting decisions that are not ideal for the child. Often these decisions are entirely debatable. Who is to be judge and jury of every parent’s every decision? Let the perfect parent cast the first stone. Parents certainly need flexibility to deal with everyone’s ever changing life situations. The child is affected by both good and poor parenting decisions. That is the very definition of parenting.
The state has proven throughout history to be the worst parent of all. We have to dump this idea that the state can make a parenting rule for all and then expect good outcomes for most. It simply doesn’t happen. All we can expect from the state is a backstop to prevent the worst of outcomes. We are kidding ourselves if we think the state’s forced intervention can do more than that.
Hence the amount paid in the voluntary part – part B maybe a suggested amount based on some formula. However it must be entirely voluntary to allow each parent to make their own parenting decisions. Good or bad.
It must also be noted that the overwhelming evidence is that: the more both parents are actively involved in raising the child and making parenting decisions, the more likely they are to pay for all those extras for the child. Hence if we really want to share the costs of child raising then we need to give parents every incentive to share the day to day care of children.
There will be some parents who object to this voluntary part. They may genuinely have a case that one parent only pays the compulsory part for the basics and also has no interest in being involved with the child. This is unfortunate for the child. However we need to acknowledge that it is not the state’s job to resolve people’s relationship issues, poor lifestyle choices, or less than ideal parenting decisions. The state certainly can’t resolve these issues by attempting to transfer wealth for everyone who lives in different households with all sorts of family arrangements. That simply creates more problems than it attempts to resolve.
Further more, forcing one parent to distribute wealth to another parent does not mean that money will be spent on the child. It is virtually impossible to ensure that discretionary money will be spent on the child. The current system makes absolutely no attempt to do so, even allowing the payments to be forced directly to some other use. The state simply can’t force people to make “ideal” parenting decisions. Only parents can do that.
Both of the situations above simply reinforce that it is impossible for the state to set an ‘ideal’ or ‘fair’ level of child support beyond the basics. It can make suggestions based on it’s own ideology or policies of the day but the state must leave that decision up to parents.
The state does not prescribe how much a married couple must pay for their children. We would agree that was absurd. Likewise the state has no business and is not able to prescribe how much a separated couple must pay for their children – expect to define the absolute minimum. We have to accept this or we will never have a system that actually works.
The law is not there to make sure your domestic life is absolutely “fair”. The state simply can’t do that. The state can only provide for the children receiving the basics. The state can only try prevent the worst outcomes – and often fails to even do that much. Anything else is a parenting decision.
You have to choose wisely if you want the other parent to always make good parenting decisions. If you choose poorly or the other person changes, that is unfortunate but it is not something the state has the power to resolve for you.
In addition there will be some who say it is not the tax payers role to pay for people’s children when they separate. This may or may not be a reasonable position. The problem with it, is 3 fold.
Firstly in practice the money collected goes into general government coffers – not directly to fund a particular policy.
The second problem is that if one group of tax payers should have to fund specific government social policies then shouldn’t that apply to all? What is happening is that some tax payers who are seperated have to pay extra money to the state in extra taxes. Why discriminate against them based on their martial status to fund one particular government policy that they may not even agree with? Where does that end? For example: Why should companies have to pay higher income tax to fund policies that don’t benefit their workers, or their business when a company can’t even vote? The list could go on and on.
The biggest problem with this is more practical. Most parents don’t object to funding the basic care of their children. However if that money does not go directly to their children but rather into general government coffers then they do object to this since it then has no relation to parenting. This is not a normal government funding issue. Anything that relates to a parent’s children is likely going to generate strong emotions. The net result is a negative reaction by the paying parent and no tangible benefit to the child. This works against having a functional system and undermines it’s intention. Ultimately this becomes counter productive for even the tax payer.
Either we have government social policies for single parents or we don’t. However forcing only one segment of tax payers to pay extra tax towards this particular and very personal intrusion into their lives is counter productive. It ends up costing tax payers as much or more than what is gained. There are more constructive ways to raise government revenue for social policies that the government may wish to fund.
The good news is that most parents are willing to provide for their children. The more they are involved in the child’s life, the more likely they will provide well for their children. Forcing them to make a wealth distribution works against their ability to exercise parenting decisions and is counter productive to most children.
The state can suggest a figure for the voluntary part B of child support but it is up to the paying parent how or even if they make that payment.
For some totally unexplained, irrational reason we think the state can write a formula or a book on the ideal way to fund parenting for all separated couples. Nothing could be further from the reality. The only model that has ever worked is for individual adults to make individual parenting decisions for the particular needs of their individual children within the context of everybody’s constantly changing situation.
The solution is to have Part A – compulsory only the very basics divided by carers and Part B – voluntary to highlight the fact that children have other needs, desires and interests that need to be determined and funded as a voluntary parenting choice.
If we had such an approach at least we would have a working system and we are far more likely to have positive outcomes for children in the long run.