Have you ever ticked an answer box on a form or survey because it was the best choice available, even though it didn’t quite fit your experience? While that may be frustrating, for most people it has no direct bearing on their daily life. But what if your response had an immediate financial impact on whether or not you lived above or below the poverty line? That would be more than just frustrating and you’d probably demand a change in how your information was recorded.
Unfortunately, for lone mothers in receipt of child support in Australia, the survey and administrative categories used to report and describe their experiences are flawed. In turn, there is no easy way for women to challenge or correct these systematic inaccuracies. Instead, many mothers accept reduced child support and benefit payments as the least problematic option. When child support is late, partial, or unpaid, Australia’s welfare agency excludes important information in recording these issues. These informational failures are also replicated in surveys tasked with recording women’s child support experiences. Even more troublesome, child support and welfare policies are then informed by the inaccurate data gathered in survey studies and held by Government departments.
To illustrate how women fit their experiences into available data collection options, we interviewed nineteen women about their child support payments, and compared the findings with what they had reported to Australia’s welfare agency and in surveys. We found that women had either deliberately, or inadvertently, “smoothed” their experiences to fit the response options available. In both administrative datasets and surveys, the response options focused primarily on the amount of child support paid but missed key aspects of child support payment receipts — an area considered most important to women.
The interviews revealed that the meaning and importance of child support for women centred on the timing and completeness of payments — aspects that were routinely overlooked in the Australian Government’s welfare and survey records. Administratively, when reporting child support payments, women often acquiesced to the welfare system’s default option: that child support was received “in full and on time.” By smoothing their experiences to fit these administrative limitations, women consequently received less welfare benefits than they were legally entitled to.
Our analysis found that women had smoothed their child support experiences based on their evaluation of the “costs” of accurate reporting. For instance, reporting a child support underpayment could have undesirable consequences: triggering hostility from the paying parent; a renegotiation of child-contact arrangements; and/or the reduced likelihood of receiving child support payments in the future. These undesirable consequences were regarded as higher costs than a reduction in benefit payments, and were, in turn, costs borne solely by the woman.
On the flip side, reporting child support underpayments and receiving the additional welfare benefits this entitled could result in welfare benefit overpayments if child support was later received. Again, this cost was borne by women rather than the non-compliant payer or the state. Thus, women sought to avoid these scenarios, and as such, found that inaccurately reporting financial consequences became the most viable option. As a result, non-compliant payers and the state received a financial benefit as they were compelled to pay less child support and welfare, respectively, than they were obliged to.
In surveys, women also excluded information about payment arrears, incomplete payments, or payments that were unlikely to eventuate. These data entry decisions were driven by the format of the questions asked rather than by women’s evaluations of social and financial costs. Incomplete, owing, or unmade payments were hard to account for in a survey question that asked, for example, ‘How much child support did you receive?’ and, ‘How much child support should you receive?’ The format of possible responses typically allowed only a dollar value to be entered, and as such did not allow for “written” information on what this dollar value meant (such as accumulating arrears or modifying expectations for what should be received to improve the likelihood of future payments). We found that over time women gave up on trying to report a dollar value for payments that were not received or not expected, or they modified the payment expected to match what they had received. When analysing the data, two unintended outcomes are produced:
(1) Such entries would be excluded, as no data were entered, or;
(2) The data show no evidence or payment arrears as the expected and received values match.
While such inaccurate survey responses had no immediate consequences for women, the long-term consequences are two-fold: firstly, both administrative data and surveys inaccurately represent the reality of child support compliance. Secondly, the data obscures the problem, making it less amenable to policy change. When taken together, the child support data collection method fails to acknowledge or substantiate the experiences of women, and as such these practices contribute to the gendered development of evidence available for policy reform. In this light, we argue that gender-sensitive “evidence-based policy” in this area is impossible without a significant restructuring of the way that child support data are collected.