Media Briefings

Evidence From Fathers’ Child Support Payments On The Impact Of Partners’ Relative Incomes On Bargaining Power Within Households

  • Published Date: March 2008

The balance of power in household decision-making depends on the relative
incomes of the two partners, according to new research by Professor John
and Chiara Pronzato published in the March 2008 issue of The
Economic Journal
Their study examines child support payments made by divorced fathers in
Britain who have formed new partnerships, and finds that the size of the
payments increases with the share of the father’s income relative to his
new partner.
As the new partner presumably cares little about the welfare of children from
the previous relationship, this implies that the higher the income of the father
relative to the new partner (holding household income constant), the more
power the father has in household decisions.
The authors comment:
‘We find that fathers who contribute a higher proportion of household
income are more likely to pay child support and to pay higher
amounts. This is consistent with partners’ relative incomes affecting
their bargaining power in household decisions.’
In Britain, nearly two-thirds (65%) of children born into a cohabiting union and
almost a third (30%) of children born within a marriage will experience
dissolution of their parent’s union before they are 16. So maintenance
payments are a fact of life for many divorced parents across the country.
This is useful for assessing the relative power within couples, as the only way
to assess whether relative incomes have an effect is to find a good that is only
valued and consumed by one partner.
For example, suppose only the woman drinks wine. If, holding household
income constant, wine consumption increases when she contributes more to
household income, then it is likely that her bargaining power in household
decisions has increased. In this case, who in the household receives cash
transfers, like family allowances, would affect the household’s consumption
patterns and the distribution of welfare in the family.
But data on whether it is only the woman who drinks wine do not exist. Other,
gender-specific spending is no more helpful. While women enjoy buying
clothes for themselves, for example, there is no way of telling how much their
partners enjoy seeing them in their new clothes.
This study uses information about child support payments by formerly married
fathers who have dependent children living elsewhere and who have formed
new partnerships. Of course, only voluntary maintenance payments matter – if
the father has to pay his ex-wife maintenance, then the new partner cannot
alter that. But in a national survey by the Office for National Statistics, over
half (56%) of maintenance payments were voluntary. And most of the rest are
poorly enforced, so in effect they are voluntary.
The authors use data from the British Household Panel Survey, a nationally
representative sample, which tracks 5,500 families every year since 1991.
From these data, the authors identify men who had a child within a
partnership and for whom that partnership subsequently dissolved. From
annual observations of these men after the couple separated, they calculate
how long they have a dependent child (aged under 16) not living with them
and have a new partner.
The authors conclude:
‘While the households we look at are not typical, there is no strong
reason to believe that the role of relative incomes in decision-making
is distinctly different from other households containing a married or
cohabiting couple.’
Notes for editors: ‘Intra-Household Allocation of Resources: Inferences from
Non-resident Fathers’ Child Support Payments’ by John Ermisch and Chiara
Pronzato is published in the March 2008 issue of The Economic Journal.
The authors are at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the
University of Essex.
For further information: contact Chiara Pronzato on 01206 873760 (email:; John Ermisch via email:; or
Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768 661095 (email: