THE LIKELY LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF THE CHILD SUPPORT ACT
Within the current rules, many absent parents will continue to face maintenance demands far in excess of their previous payments, and an increasing number of absent parents will be brought into the operations of the Agency. The long-term reduction of income for absent parents and their existing families will progressively erode their standard of living. This will probably result in strain and relationship breakdown. Relationships and arrangements between absent and caring parents also seem likely to face further problems. It may reasonably be predicted that as the number of affected absent parents increases, and their grievances do not go away, they will become more organized, and will learn to campaign more assertively against the Act. Offsetting this it may also be that a degree of accommodation will take place, with absent parents adapting in various ways to the Agency’s demands. Perhaps some sort of cultural shift will take place in popular concepts and expectations of absent parents’ roles and responsibilities, away from notions of clean breaks or uncommitted fatherhood, towards ideas of ongoing financial responsibility for biological children regardless of the status of the relationship between the parents. However, this seems to go against current trends in relationships between men and women in the United Kingdom.
Concerning the reactions of parents with care, those parents who are not on income support will in time stand to make a real gain in income in some cases. In particular, those with earnings that take them above the family credit level may find that, with the addition of maintenance from the other parent, they are appreciably better-off. From 1996, parents with care on better incomes are likely to feature increasingly among the Agency’s clientele. There may at that point be something of a groundswell of support for the Act. But parents with care on the means-tested benefits may still actually be worse-off in real terms, or suffer in other ways.
As has been argued, the primary objective of government in passing the Child Support Act was to make public expenditure savings in social security, mainly by removing significant numbers of lone parents from income support. However, savings may be smaller than anticipated. This is because current high levels of unemployment and the absence of free or subsidized child care make it difficult for lone mothers to move into employment. Unemployment also affects absent parents. The Child Support Agency itself, of course, carries a cost to run.
At this stage it remains difficult to assess what precisely the net savings of the Act will be. The Agency’s targets were not met in its first year.