By Kate Green
Virtually every family in the country receives child benefit for their kids. This long established, near universal, well understood and popular benefit, paid to the main carer, usually the mother, has been the mainstay of family budgets for the past 63 years. It helps the poorest to pay for the basics, while even better off families use it as a special pot of money to spend on the children, often saving it for treats or for extras when children reach a particular life event.
As a universal benefit it has an important symbolic value: a powerful indicator of the responsibility we all share for each of our children, the value they have for all of us. It comes free of the stigma of a handout to the poor, with a 98% take-up rate, it’s been more effective at reaching the poorest children than any of the benefits specifically designed for them, it’s simple and cheap to administer (no overpayments to claw back, or complicated means forms to fill in), it follows the child so it goes on being paid out even if family circumstances alter, it’s a secure source of income to rely on, in good times and bad.
Its popularity, effectiveness and all-round usefulness, not least in tackling child poverty, have already been recognised: Ministers have made welcome extra investment to increase its value and extend its scope in recent years.
But now we should take one more bold but simple step to make it fair to all children: pay the same amount of child benefit to every child.
Today the rate paid for the first child is greater than for the younger siblings in a family, presumably on the idea of economies of scale. But children aren’t mass produced factory goods, they all have individual needs and identities, and every child deserves the same financial support. Now is the time to start quibbling, to raise the rate for second and subsequent children in a family to the same as is paid for the first child.
Making child benefit fairer to children also makes good economic sense. Putting extra money into every household budget now would be especially welcome when recession is leaving families increasingly anxious about how they are going to make ends meet. It would be a great recession-buster – families would get out and spend the extra cash in their local economy, helping local business get back on its feet. At a stroke it would help government meet its child poverty targets. And it would certainly get noticed – the best, quickest, simplest, demonstration of commitment to every family, and to all of our kids.
Child benefit is such a simple, straightforward, successful benefit that it’s sometimes too easy to take it for granted, even to assume it’s gone past its sell-by date. Instead we should see it as our most radical benefit, the benefit that’s fit for the future, with the potential to do so much more for our kids.
Let’s challenge those who are arguing that it goes to those who “don’t need it”, who want to means test it, to tax it, to ‘front load’ it (denying the same payments for older children), to scale back its reach. Let’s ask them to shift their voices instead to support means testing where it is needed most – in the tax system. This will ensure the increase in child benefit can be afforded by taxing the wealthiest and closing the loopholes enjoyed by the low-tax elite.
The best ideas are the simplest. Child benefit works, nearly everyone gets it – the best way to help all families is to invest more in it now.
Kate Green is the Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group.