Child Benefit, A Better Way

October 11, 2010

Ed Milliband says that Child Benefit should remain universal, telling the BBC that “I’m in favour of that yes, and I’m in favour of it because it’s a cornerstone of our system to have universal benefits, and frankly there aren’t that many millionaires in this country.”

But far better would be a redesigned system which diverts resources from high worth individuals, and corporations, to poor mothers, not a universal benefits system which was instituted at a time when providing an independent income for mothers full stop was deemed essential to give them a measure of independence from men. This emerged from the tradition of labourism, which promoted temperance among working men, seeing the mass as dissolute and corruptible. Hence, giving mothers money directly might allow them to provide for their children irrespective of male caprices such as gambling and drinking.

Child Benefit itself came along in the late 1970s, as a dual system of payments to mothers and tax credits was abolished. For the first time, mothers would receive a single payment for every child – not just from the second onwards as had been the case after 1946. Tax credits, which generally favoured male wage earners, were out. Simplicity was ensured by the single, universal payment, but this also meant that governments could hold down the level of Child Benefit below inflation. Middle class and rich families would hardly notice that their payments were diminishing in value, while poor mothers would suffer, and they did, as Conservative governments fought against campaigners to keep things that way.

But Child Benefit was never redistributive in any sense. It was never a progressive idea or policy, intended to provide a fairer environment in which children could grow and develop. Why though, should mothers in impoverished areas and households, be paid the same as mothers with high household incomes, and the advantages of bringing up children in affluent areas, with better public services? The best justification from a progressive point of view seems to have been a feminist one: providing independent incomes for mothers gave them protection against abusive husbands, and against separation (or the death of a parent).

However, as more and more women entered the labour market, and their incomes rose, such a justification surely rang more and more hollow. Of course, patriarchy had to be challenged continually, but as women won more battles, the universality of Child Benefits changed from a virtuous policy enhancing female autonomy, to a regressive subsidy to wealthy families and a drain on resources that could go directly to the disadvantaged.

So why cry for the removal of Child Benefit from wealthy families? Because it is not a progressive policy designed to promote equality of gender equality. Benefits for poorer mothers aren’t about to balloon from the monies saved, which, we will be told, will be siphoned off to the fraudulent black hole of “deficit reduction.”

Additionally, universalism, while unfair, had certain advantages in that it accustomed the rich to the act of receiving benefits, and promoted solidarity between recipients – it legitimated the act of conferring resources upon those deemed in need – a not insubstantial thing in my mind.

So when Miliband glibly states that he desires that Child Benefit be restored, I can’t help but disagree strongly. In reality, it is just another Blairite gesture towards “Middle Britain” – a sign that the Labour leadership remains as woolly as ever on social justice issues and, in particular, child poverty.

What is needed is a graduated system that reflects the differing challenges faced by parents at different income levels and in different circumstances. It simply is harder to bring up children in poorer areas, when your income is below the poverty line, than it is in affluent suburbs.

But there’s a massive catch. “Affluent” families can also depend upon benefit monies – given the cost of living (particularly in London). Taking benefits away from the middle classes without taking steps to reduce private debt levels and to limit the cost of higher education (which is set to rocket), is also unfair.

In other words, the challenge for the Left is to square these two imperatives:

Create a redistributive system of child benefit to promote economic equality and rejuvenate poor areas. Payment of direct benefits tends to then feed into consumption of local services, stimulating small businesses, so poorer areas would benefit in general, not just struggling families/single parents.

Ensure that every child and family can access certain core elements of life if they so wish, elements that are socially agreed to be necessary to promote happiness, social and cultural development and economic prosperity. This would include child care, auxillary learning services such as tutoring and summer schools, sports facilities, outdoor recreation, higher education, vocational training, access to literature, health care, dietary information and access to nutritious food…

We are led back, as ever, to the need for a wide-ranging Left-progressive program of social change, powered by a grassroots demand for effectively delivered redistributive policies. Not rocket science, to put it bluntly, but beyond Red Ed.



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