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Dads choice to withhold child support is preventable poverty

A new animation released in Anti-Poverty Week points out a simple way to help end child poverty.  Titled Dad – your choice hurts meit powerfully conveys, from a child’s perspective, the impact of the failure (mostly by Dads) to meet their child support commitments.

Please stop hurting me, please stop limiting my living.”  It concludes, “Children don’t have the safety or means to contest unpaid child support debt. Their experiences of poverty are real and lasting. Day to day. Year on year. Unpaid child support is preventable poverty.”

Academic research published in the Journal of Poverty and Justice (2017) backs this up – it found that 21 per cent of families who received child support were brought out of poverty[i].

Terese Edwards, CEO of Single Mother Families Australia said:

“The animation spells out the impact on children if parents (mostly fathers), do not pay their fair share.

“Withholding child support is a form of control and abuse – as we showed in our report, Financial abuse: the weaponisation of child support in Australia, released in March 2023. We found 80% of survey respondents, overwhelmingly single mothers entitled to child support, reported that ex-partners use child support to continue control and abuse.

“At least 200,000 people, mostly men, who owe child support have failed to submit a tax return for more than two years and more than 16,000 have not filed a tax return for more than 10 years.

“This is tax evasion and avoidance. It is a policy disaster that has lingered unsolved for years.

“The government could simply require both parties to lodge an annual tax return.

“We welcome the recommendation in this week’s Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce final report to: Remove the Child Support Maintenance Income Test (MIT) from the Family Tax Benefit Part A (FTBA) calculation, to establish certainty of FTBA payments for financially vulnerable families and to prevent child support from being used as a tool of financial abuse.”

Executive Director of Anti-Poverty Week Toni Wren said, “the purpose of child support is to ensure the children impacted by relationship breakdown have, as close as possible, the standard of living as if their parents had not separated.  But the evidence tells us the reverse is happening.  Changes undertaken mainly by the Howard government but not corrected by subsequent governments (both Coalition and ALP) have significantly undermined the original scheme.”

How failure to pay child support plunges children into poverty:

  • Child poverty is unacceptably high in Australia, with more than one in six children growing up in poverty, diminishing their lives now and in the future.
  • Nearly half the children in sole parent families live in poverty (44%) compared with 13% for children living with both parents[ii]. In single parent families in which the main earner is a woman the rate of poverty (37%) is twice that in which the main earner is a man (18%)[iii].

The latest data published by the Department of Social Services in June 2023 and Services Australia in October 2023 finds:

  • Just over 1 million children in Australia (nearly 1 in 5) should be receiving child support through the scheme, but for more than half it’s impossible to determine if they are receiving it. This is because they are in the “private” arrangement where the paying parent is supposed to transfer directly to the parent caring for the children. We have no way of knowing how much of the $2.135B in 2022-23 that has been assessed for these children, is received.
  • We don’t know the full amount of child support owed to the 1 million Australian children currently in the system. The government doesn’t publish it. We do know that $1.7 billion is owed to about 500,000 children (and some who were in the scheme previously), just in the approximately 50% of cases the government is supposed to collect.[iv]
  • Currently, around 150,00 parents in the government collect scheme who are supposed to pay child support have a debt (one in four). Of these, only half have a payment plan in place. The proportion with a plan has dropped from just over 60% to nearly 50% from 2019-20 to 2022-23. The 150,000 doesn’t include those whose cases have ended but who still have a child support debt.
  • Services Australia says it cannot collect overdue amounts under self‑managed child support arrangements; however, it can collect overdue payments at any time for the government collect arrangements, and generally only up to three months (or nine months in exceptional circumstances) for private arrangements (more than 50% of all assessments). Penalties for late payment go to the Federal Government, not the children.
  • Women comprise 85% of payees (due support). Seven in 10 payees take care of the children most of the time (more than 86% of the year).
  • The median adjusted annual taxable income of a child support payer was $54,125; $33,078 for a payee.
  • Nearly one third of child support is assessed at the minimum rate of less than $10 a week (and 57% at less than $100 a week). Note most cases (60%) have one child only, 30% have two children and 10% have three or more children.
Child Support Assessments graph June 2023
Child Support Assessments, Dept of Social Security, June 2023

[i] Skinner, Christine, Kay Cook, and Sarah Sinclair. 2017. “The Potential of Child Support to Reduce Lone Mother Poverty: Comparing Population Survey Data in Australia and the UK.” Journal of Poverty and Social Justice 25 (1):79-94

[ii] Davidson, P; Bradbury, B; and Wong, M (2023) Poverty in Australia 2023: Who is affected? Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and UNSW Sydney.

[iii] Davidson, P., Bradbury, B., Hill, T. and Wong, M. (2020), Poverty in Australia 2020: Who is affected?  ACOSS/UNSW Poverty and Inequality Partnership Report No. 4, Sydney: ACOSS.  See also Anti-Poverty Week, Fast Facts Child and Family Poverty in Australia, 2023 and Melbourne Institute, From Partnered to Single, Financial Security Over a Lifetime, 9/6/22 which found on average, men lose 5% of their income while women lose 29% after separation.

[iv] $1.69 billion cited in Department of Social Services submission to the Senate Poverty Inquiry, February 2023.