THE BLOG

Kids Aren't Free

05/06/2013 11:29 BST | Updated 04/08/2013 10:12 BST

Seems obvious doesn't it? In fact, kids cost a lot of money to raise, and a major new research study shows that far too many of the poorest children raised in single parent households still don't receive a penny in child maintenance from their child's other parent.

The research, which looks in detail at the child maintenance arrangements of single parents on benefit - a particularly vulnerable group - shows that, while there has been some progress in the number of parents paying and receiving child maintenance in recent years, not enough is being done to ensure the children of low income households are receiving money to which they are entitled.

Following a series of policy changes, between 2007 and 2012 the proportion of single parents on benefit who receive child maintenance increased from a quarter (24 per cent) to a third (36 per cent). Over the same period, the proportion who make maintenance arrangements privately increased five-fold, from four per cent to 20 per cent. But, despite this limited progress, two thirds of single parents on benefit don't receive any child maintenance from their child's other parent. And among those who do have maintenance arrangements, using the Child Support Agency (CSA) is still nearly twice as common as making a private arrangement.

Indeed, the research shows quite clearly that private arrangements can be difficult to sustain over time - although four in ten single parents on benefit had 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.

Timely, given the fact that the government is implementing major reforms to how the statutory child maintenance service works, most notably pushing more parents towards private arrangements and introducing charges for those who use the statutory service. Few would disagree that the ideal scenario is where two parents sit down together and agree between them how to share financial responsibility for bringing up their child. Where this can happen, and the arrangement works, then that's great - and the more support there is for parents to help them do this, the better.

But in the real world - and in all too many cases - this just doesn't happen. As one of the single parents in the study commented: "If it was coming out from the CSA then it will definitely get paid. Whereas if he was giving me a set amount he might, like he puts it, 'forget' to pay me". This research shows there is a long way to go before we reach a point where continuing to support your children - practically, emotionally and financially - is the norm after separation. And in the meantime, we have to make sure that there are no barriers to parents seeking and receiving child maintenance; in particular because it makes such a difference to children's lives: one in five of those in this group who receive it are lifted out of poverty as a result.

Instead, the government is planning to introduce charges for parents whose private arrangements haven't worked, which only risks making some of 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. Kids aren't free, and yet this will heap extra costs onto already struggling families. It's not enough to simply 'blame the parents'. For them, and for their children, we need to do better.

'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.