The release in July 2005 of the Child Support Taskforce’s report, In the Best Interests of Children - Reforming the Child Support Scheme, that recommended reform to child support arrangements in Australia is to be welcomed. The taskforce’s recommendations, if implemented, would mean child support would be based more on the amount of care provided by, and income of, the resident parent (typically the mother), instead of the present antiquated system in which the non-resident parent (typically the father) pays a fixed proportion of income. It has been reported that if the taskforce’s recommendations were implemented, approximately 60 per cent of parents paying child support would pay less than presently is the case.
The key objective underpinning the recommendations is to adapt the child support regime to meet with contemporary realities. What is the current reality though? Why is child support such a burning issue?
In my view, the perceived difficulties which child support raise would be easily resolved if all parents, and in particular the resident parent/mother, actually gave genuine regard to what is in the best interests of the child. In contemporary society, a great number of parents, and in particular mothers who are usually the resident parent, use their children as a status symbol, to compensate for the life they have “given up” to become a mother, or the alternative life that they have never had. And in a material world, chasing after status can be expensive.
Much has been written in recent times on the phenomenon of “social comparison” or what is more commonly described as “keeping up with the Joneses”. As London School of Economics professor emeritus Lord Richard Layard discusses in his new book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, as a society, we have become increasingly caught up in a status race, in which we constantly compare ourselves with others and try to keep up. (Layard: 2005) This is problematic because the status race is a “zero-sum game” - that is, there is only so much status to go around. If someone does “better”, someone else must do worse. Accordingly, despite having all our material wants and needs satisfied, as a society we are not as happy as previous generations.
Typically, men still use the career route to construct their path to greater status. Increasingly, women on the status treadmill are using their kids. A woman’s status is measured by the types of clothes their kids wear, what schools they go to, how many fancy moves they can pull at gymnastics class, and the amount of mini-chinos they can swill down in the local café. The result, in my view, are kids who may be filled with froth, but have little or no experience of raw parental love. Our future society is at risk due to the insecurity of some of today's trendy mothers.
To seriously address what is in the best interests of the child, we must return to grass roots. Haggling over pennies demeans women, and is a rather ugly distraction from the real job of parenting. In my view, the Child Support Taskforce’s recommendations to liberalise the present support regime do not go far enough. Instead, the child support regime should be abolished. Findings in the emerging science of happiness justify my position. These empirically backed findings bring forward two significant points.
First, the most important factor contributing to one’s happiness is being in a loving relationship. This does not need to be a sexual relationship; it applies just as much (and some studies show even more so) to the relationship between parent and child. Both parents and children benefit from a caring and loving relationship. If we, as a community, appreciated this very basic point, and educate mothers and fathers on the virtues of good parenting (even from the self-interested perspective of being happier), then the energy exerted in bickering over child support would be seen as the joke it is.
Second, there is a very weak correlation between the amount of money that one has and one’s level of happiness, once basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, health are satisfied. Behavioural biologist Dr Paul Martin writes in the recently released Making Happy People: The Nature of Happiness and Its Origins in Childhood:
Increases in personal wealth produce comparable increases in personal happiness only up to a point where basic human needs such as food, shelter, clean water and health care have been catered for.
Therefore fighting over a few lousy bucks is hardly going to enhance the well-being of either the resident parent/mother or the children - and especially not the father. But neither should we put at risk the welfare of children by mothers not being able to afford to provide these basic needs to children.
Accordingly, as an alternative to child support, I propose that at an extra 2 per cent rate of tax be imposed on high income earners (earning above, say, $70,000) and corporations. The revenue from this extra tax would be set aside to guarantee that mothers meet the basic needs of children until they finish high school.
This extra tax would hardly make a dent on the lifestyles of the wealthy, but would simultaneously support children but without all the problems associated with the present child support regime. This basic support payment may not cover Latin classes or judo for pre-schoolers, but maybe it’s time for some mothers to withdraw from the status race, and actually attend to the best interests of their children.