Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Child Support Research in Australia: A Critical Review

Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Child Support Research in Australia: A Critical Review

Article excerpt


The Australian Child Support Scheme impacts on the lives of many Australian families. Yet the Australian evidence base informing child support policy development is relatively sparse and lacks coherence. In this article, we employ an equity framework to consolidate the published Australian empirical child support research in order to identify gaps in current knowledge and assess the various layers of competing interest inherent therein. While researchers have begun to examine the financial outcomes of the new Australian Child Support Scheme, work is urgently needed to understand the effects that the new scheme has on children, payees and payers, and how these effects operate. We conclude by proposing an agenda for future Australian child support research that focuses on the aims of the scheme and the four equity principles we employ, namely, horizontal, vertical, gender, and intergenerational equity.

Key words: divorce; children; child support; social policy; policy analysis; equity


The Australian child support system currently impacts the lives of approximately 1.5 million separated parents and 1.1 million children (Child Support Agency [CSA], 2009; see also Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2011). Yet the evidence base that informs child support policy is relatively thin. Over the past decade, 20 Australian peer-reviewed empirical studies have been published that focus specifically on child support. Given that 'good policy requires good data' (Smyth, 2002a, p. 33), a lack of available evidence in the child support context makes it difficult to develop, assess and refine child support policy--especially the impacts that the Scheme has on the lives of Australian children and their parents. In this article, we review the relatively small body of evidence on the Australian Child Support Scheme since 2000, comment on the usefulness of this research, and identify areas where more knowledge is needed.

The remainder of this article is in four parts. We begin by describing the evolution of the Australian Child Support Scheme, and then set out our conceptual framework and our analysis of the recent Australian research. We conclude by identifying areas of contested, ambiguous or absent data where future research will advance the field.


The introduction of the Australian Child Support Scheme in the late 1980s was preceded by a small but important body of research on the feminization of poverty in Australia, which identified the financial disadvantage that many single parent families experienced (Burns, 1985; Cass, 1985, 1988; McDonald, 1986). However, while various reports have examined the Scheme since its inception in 1988 (see, e.g., Family Law Pathways Advisory Group, 2001), it was not until the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs (2003) inquiry into child custody, and the subsequent release of the Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support (2005) report, that significant changes to the Scheme were introduced. These changes were implemented over a 3-year period between 2006 and 2008 and resulted in an increase in the minimum child support payment amount, a lower cap on maximum child support liabilities, increased recognition of contact between payer parents (mostly fathers) and their children, increased recognition of in-kind payments (such as the payment of school fees), simplified relations between the courts and the Child Support Scheme, and more equal treatment of children in first and second families. While the Australian Child Support Scheme differs significantly from those in the UK and the USA, Australia has been viewed as a world leader of child support policy development (Funder, 1997; Shephard, 2005). However, the extent to which Australia continues to lead child support policy development will rely on the quality of evidence used to propose and evaluate policy change. …

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