Monday, 17 June 2013

Idle Thoughts on Child Support

     I recall feeling vaguely unsettled by one of the legal principles of child support in Canada, when I was taking Family Law in law school. The basic idea is that parents are supposed to contribute financially to the support of children while the children are in the care of the other parent, and the amount of this financial support is prescribed in the Federal Child Support Guidelines, based on the income of the contributing parent. 

     Now, I have no problem with the idea that a parent's duty to contribute should scale with the parent's income. What I felt uncomfortable about was the fact that, under the law, the child of a wealthy parent has a right to more support than the child of a poor parent. It's not that I begrudge wealthy children being well-provided for, but that it strikes me as unjust that poor children aren't seen as being equally deserving. Wealthy parents will naturally provide more for their children than poor parents, and that's a private matter that we can't do anything about. Nor should we want to, even if we could. But it's different when the law gets involved, and the courts officially rule that child A is entitled to only this much a month in support, while child B is entitled to that much.

     It's obvious, of course, how this came to be. After all, the money for these support payments is coming FROM the parents and going TO their own children. In the individual case, you can't get more money from a poor parent just because you think that child needs or deserves or even has a right to more support; the poorer parent just won't be able to provide, and that's that. I understand that the courts in child support cases are only dealing with the case at hand, not the income disparity between cases. I suppose it's a question of the rhetoric involved. If we limited ourselves to talking about the parents' obligations, then I'm perfectly comfortable with saying a wealthy parent has an obligation to pay more in child support than a parent of more limited financial means. But we do talk about the rights and interests of the children; indeed, in family law, the best interests of the child are of paramount importance. So when we admit the interests of a child as a matter to consider (as distinct from the obligations of the parent), the conflict arises: Why does this child deserve more support than that child? Is it not inhuman to say that a child living in poverty has less need for support than a privileged child?     And we're talking about children here, not the adults who earn the money. Of course wealthy people who earn their money are entitled to lavish as much of it on their children as they like. But the children themselves have not earned this income, and it's a little harder to argue that they are morally entitled to it as against each other. And if a wealthy parent chooses to run a frugal household, spending no more on piano lessons or ski trips than a poorer family, the state will not generally interfere, and no one would argue that the wealthy parent's child is entitled to a more luxurious childhood simply because the means exist. But even if we have a sense that the children of wealthy parents in some sense deserve to benefit from the good fortune of their birth, are we prepared to accept the converse: that the children of poor parents in some sense deserve to live in poverty?

     So while deliberating over this, I had a crazy thought. It's not something I could ever see happening in the current political climate, and I'm not quite sure how to square it with my own general philosophy on taxation, but the idea is this: What if a portion of every adult's income were paid into a general child support fund, which was then distributed equally among all children? That is, what if we simply applied the principle of child support universally, without regard for whether or not there was a divorce or separation? Parents who were still together would pay out their child support tax, but they'd receive back child support payments that would in all likelihood be more than they paid out (thanks in part to the contributions of adults without children of their own), thus ensuring that all parents with children in their care would receive some resources to take care of those children.
      Such a system would have costs, to be sure, but probably not much on the balance, since the administrative infrastructure for taxation already exists, and here in Canada we've a long history of providing various subsidies for child care, what my parents referred to as the Baby Bonus. It would also have the benefit of removing the issue of child support completely from family court and reducing caseloads accordingly.
      One of the objections I can imagine to this approach would come from adults who don't want to have children. I've heard in the past advocates for the "child-free" community argue that the choice to have children is a personal one that shouldn't impose costs on others who choose not to have children. I think we can dismiss this sort of whining by simply recognizing that while having children may be a "lifestyle choice", being a child is not; every single member of the "child-free movement" is a former child. There is nothing in the least bit discriminatory in providing a benefit that applies equally to all children, except in the sense that some of us were unfortunately born too early to benefit from it.
     The other likely objection, of course, is that this is just plain wealth redistribution, and of course it is. That's not a point in its favor, but neither is it necessarily a point against it; redistribution of wealth is only a wrong if you assume that the current distribution of that wealth is more just than the proposed redistribution. As a default position, we should generally assume that people have earned their wealth lawfully through informed and voluntary trades, and so we should be reluctant to interfere unnecessarily, but that assumption does not hold here; children do nothing to earn or deserve being born to either wealthy or poor parents.


  1. There is another point that some people might complain about, and that could be that some people would use having children as a means to increase their income (silly as that sounds).

  2. Thanks, Johanus, and yes I suppose I can see someone making that argument, now that you mention it. I'm having a hard time imagining the amount of money it would take to persuade me to go through pregnancy and childbirth, though, if I weren't already interested in becoming a parent for personal reasons.

  3. Tom,

    You wrote: "redistribution of wealth is only a wrong if you assume that the current distribution of that wealth is more just than the proposed redistribution."

    But I'm not sure that's true. I'm not even sure what justice has to do with it, but it's easy to imagine scenarios where the distribution of wealth is better under certain conditions but worse under others. For instance it might be better if an impoverished family made $100 more this week and a filthy rich family $100 less. However it would be decidedly worse for the government to intervene and forcibly take $100 from the rich family and give it to the impoverished one.

    Also, please fix the font!

  4. Point well taken, and I apologize for being lazy and sloppy in how I expressed myself. You are right that forcibly taking wealth from one person and giving it to someone else is, by itself, to be avoided. I tried to suggest that, in an admittedly hasty manner, by positing the assumption that people should be presumed to have come into their wealth fairly.

    The point I was trying to make, however, was that these considerations aren't applicable in the case of children. Yes, parents should be free to spend their money as they see fit, and that includes spending it on people they love (hopefully to include their children). However, under Alberta law, at least, parents also have a legal obligation to provide for their children. In practice, this obligation usually only becomes explicit when there's a separation and a court issues a child support order, but the obligation doesn't spring into existence then; it's just presumed that parents who live with their children are already fulfilling it.

    So what I'm suggesting, then, is that duty be enforced in practice generally, rather than only when there's a separation, and that the legal right to child support be equal among all children.

  5. Fair enough, but I'm not yet convinced. There seem to be two ideas in play here:

    (1) children have a right to support;

    (2) parents have an obligation to support their children.

    These ideas are distinctly different. It seems that (2) is the idea which is currently being enforced by law, and (1) is an additional idea you would like to see also enforced by law.

    If we are only concerned about (2), then your plan does nothing to improve upon the current laws. In fact, your plan in some sense undercuts (2) by reducing the amount of money some parents actually end up paying to their children. (A portion of that money goes to other children.)

    Instead your plan is aimed at satisfying (1). But is (1) really something we want to affirm? Clearly, all children deserve support. But do we want to forcibly remove wealth from others in order to give them that support? It seems to me that safeguarding individual wealth is more important than enforcing an income floor for households with children.

    If there was a more direct connection between child support payments and the well-being of children I might agree with you. But unfortunately the link seems pretty tenuous to me. Child support gets paid to parents, and those parents have a great deal of freedom to spend it as they wish. So really what has to happen is that the "child support" end up supporting the entire household to such a degree that the parents are likely to feel satisfied enough with their own well-being that they're willing to make sufficient sacrifices for their children. Also notice that this has little to do with whether the household has one or two parents.

    Anyway, I'm digressing, but the point is that only a marginal portion of the taxpayers' money will go to the children themselves, while the rest is lost on the wrong target (extra spending money for the parents). Is that really worth infringing on the rights of citizens to amass individual wealth? I tend to think not.

  6. Thank you for making the distinction between the rights of children and the duties of parents. In fact, what I want to do is decouple them, to say that adults (parents or not) have a duty to provide for children generally in part at least because they themselves were once children and benefited from (or ought to have benefitted from) the care of adults. And that children themselves have a right to care and support which does not depend on how wealthy their parents happen to be.

    You hold the safeguarding of individual wealth as more important than ensuring an income floor for children. Okay. Well, I do accept that there should be a right to amass individual wealth, but I don't believe that right is absolutely unfettered, and in fact, it's not: we ALREADY have a legal obligation to provide for our children, which necessarily compromises to some extent our private right to accumulate wealth. Unless you want to argue that parents should not be legally obliged to provide for their children, then you already acknowledge some limit to that right.

  7. Tom, Your blog was more interesting when you were talking about God. At least, whether there is a God or not matters.

  8. And child support doesn't?

    Quite sure I don't understand. But at any rate, you've given me a topic for my next posting.

  9. Tom giving money to people who are unable to support a child on there own encourages more people to have children they can't support on there own. Most women have the urge to be a mother, not all are capable to supporting a child. Giving money to women who are incapable of setting up an economic climate for there children before birth is basically child abuse. (there are of course exceptional cases but I am talking about the majority case.) Yes some women do want to have babies and want someone else to pay them to do it. Just like most forms of welfare (I assume you are too young to know what welfare was like before the extremely successful reforms in the 90s) the more you hand out the more people will take. This last is not about women in particular this is true of all people.

  10. I'm not sure whether or not to be flattered by your estimate of my age, but I started college in the '80s. The problem with welfare isn't that people get money for doing nothing. It's that they get money FOR BEING NEEDY, and this produces a perverse set of disincentives. If you earn anything, it reduces your entitlement by so much as to make any work a net loss. In places where they've had a guaranteed income model, instead of a need-based welfare model, it's been fantastically successful.

    Now, while I'll grant that there are people who will have children to get their hands on that money, I think you're grossly overestimating the rate at which this would happen for two main reasons.

    First, parenthood is burdensome. I love being a dad, but it's still a lot of work, and I have the easy part. Pregnancy is not much more fun than chemotherapy, and childbirth? Frankly, if someone is willing to go through all of that to get their greedy hands on a monthly supplement, I'm not going to complain. And even if some irresponsible and unwise parents seize upon this as a money-making opportunity, the harm that might cause would still be outweighed by the benefits to the many, many children who currently suffer the crippling disadvantages of early-childhood poverty.

    Second, there's an interesting thing that happens as standards of living go up, especially for women. Women tend to choose to have fewer babies, and delay the age at which they start having babies so that they can pursue more education or establish better careers. These babies are better cared for and grow up to be healthier and more successful themselves than babies from poor and undereducated households. Birth rates in the developed world have plummeted, and most of our population growth these days comes from immigration. Japan, Denmark, and Quebec are all looking at ways to encourage their people to have more kids.