Public views on child support

This study used questions in the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey to assess the British public's views about the child maintenance obligations of parents who do not live with their children. Top level results were published in June 2013 and the full findings were published by the Foundation in February 2015.

Over 3,000 members of the British public were presented with a series of vignettes (cases) describing separated families with different financial and family circumstances. In all the vignettes, the mother was the parent with care, and the question was how much child maintenance, if any, the non-resident father should pay. People were asked to imagine that they were responsible for setting the amount of child maintenance that the law should require. 

Key findings
  • On average, the amounts that the public thinks the law should require non-resident fathers to pay are higher than those set by the current statutory child maintenance formula.
  • The public views the role of child maintenance as going beyond simply keeping children from poverty: it expects non-resident fathers to provide amenities beyond a basic minimum, when they can afford to do so.
  • The amounts preferred by the public, unlike the current system, take the incomes of both parents into account, as well as the income of mothers’ new husbands.
  • Like the statutory formula, the public would require non-resident fathers who earn more to pay more in child maintenance. But, unlike the statutory formula (which uses a flat percentage to calculate maintenance obligations), the public adopts a more redistributive approach, with higher-earning fathers paying a higher percentage of their income in child maintenance.
  • Overall, the public would require child maintenance amounts which go further than the current statutory formula in reducing living standard differences between the households of separated parents.
Project details



Ms Caroline Bryson (BPSR), Professor Ira Ellman (Arizona State University), Stephen McKay (Lincoln University), Joanna Miles (Cambridge University)

Grant amount and duration:


November 2011 - March 2014