A Theory of Child Support
University of Southern California Law School
USC Law School Working Paper No. 98-13
Parents who support their children exhibit the twin virtues of being responsible for their actions, and caring for the helpless. Should parents who do not support their children be compelled to do so? This paper examines the justification for and proper scope of child-support laws. Traditional theories, based on children's vulnerability and parental consent do not fully justify child support. The paper therefore examines less common justifications for the allocation of child support duties between taxpayers and parents, and among parents with varied characteristics. These justifications include (1) achieving effective insurance and intergenerational justice by prepaying or repaying debts for one's own support earlier or later in life; (2) internalizing the external costs and benefits of children in order to achieve efficient levels of procreation, and to distribute the costs of children fairly among those who benefit from children; (3) achieving distributive justice by increasing equality between men and women, or by allocating private child-support duties according to the benefits received from children; (4) deterring and punishing bad procreative behavior and compensating its victims. The paper concludes that the most persuasive elements in these justifications likely support greater public funding for child rearing than is currently available, but that several good reasons -- including a tort theory of child support -- justify continued insistence that most biological parents remain liable for support. The paper also examines critically the assumption that child-support duties should depend on receiving a benefit from parenting, and comments on appropriate levels of support, and circumstances -- such as sperm donation -- in which support is not thought appropriate.
working papers series
Date posted: December 3, 1998
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