Something I’ve noticed over the past couple of months, both as a councillor and an advice agency worker, is an increase in people hoping for reassurance, rather than specific advice. In the past when I’ve been contacted for advice on welfare benefits, it’s been in response to a specific incident: an ESA50 has come in the post, or a redundancy, or a disability that’s got worse. But recently, I’ve had more and more calls, emails and surgery visits from people who are not sure what to ask me, but have heard about the new under-occupancy rules, or universal credit, or personal independence payments, and want to know how worried they should be. As I’m sure you can imagine, this is not the most fun part of either of my jobs.
While this is clearly due in part to media coverage (and I’m not complaining about that: there’s a difference between ‘scaremongering’ and ‘reporting on things which are going to be scary’), there’s no denying that as well as being misguided and badly thought-out, the majority of the government’s welfare ‘reforms’ are also painfully confusing. Perhaps the most recent example (assuming that the government haven’t, say, scrapped income support altogether in the few hours between me writing this and you reading it) is the letter that about a million families will receive today about changes to their child benefit.
As the Observer noted at the weekend, ‘The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has warned that most families remain oblivious to the change and confusion could break out when the letters arrive. It is estimated that 500,000 people will have to fill out complicated self-assessment tax returns for the first time.’ So far, so #firstworldproblems – but these changes are nothing to what may come. I’m referring, of course, to Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘kite-flying’ comments last week about proposals to pay child-related benefits, such as child benefit and child tax credits, to the first two children in each family only.
It’s not the first time this government has limited benefits paid in respect of children – the rules around the Sure Start maternity grant were changed earlier this year to limit payments to the first child only, in most cases – but given the scope of this proposed change, the hints of social engineering have not gone unnoticed. In fact this is just the latest example of the government’s attempts to modify behaviour with financial incentives and/or punishments: I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they were trialling a programme of announcing every crisis loan payment with a ringing bell and measuring claimant salivation rates. Remember the tax breaks for married couples? I’d rather forgotten about them until the Telegraph reported that Ken Clarke may be quietly shelving the idea.
But IDS’s latest suggestions indicate he is still thinking about poverty the wrong way round. Having observed that people who have enough money behave differently to people in poverty, he assumes that if people in poverty start to behave differently, money will start coagulating around them like iron filings on a magnet. His plan seems to be to nudge everyone, trait by trait, into behaving how he would like us to behave: no children until you get married and ‘can afford it’, and then only have two. This ignores three things:
One: This behaviour is irrelevant for a lot of people. We’re not talking about hanging on until you’ve put down a deposit on a house, or saved up for private school fees. If you’re on a low income (and we’re not just talking about people claiming wage-replacement benefits, here, but thousands of working people), neither your marital status nor the passage of time is going to do a damn thing for your take-home pay. Indeed, incomes go up as well as down – despite making so many people redundant, this government stubbornly refuse to recognise that sometimes, people suddenly have less money than they did before. If the message here is ‘do not have any more children than you will definitely be able to feed by yourself if your employer shuts down or your partner dies or you get sick, because if you do we will not help you’, then for a lot of people it is ‘do not have children’. There’s a word for that.
Two: I can’t stress this enough – financial support for families isn’t there as a reward or a penalty for parents who aren’t falling in line with your agenda – it’s for the kids. The bloody kids. This money is for their food and their shoes and the heating in the house where they live. If IDS wants to punish parents, he will punish children, and he needs to remember that.
Regular readers might understand if I take this a tad personally: I’m one of five, and was mostly brought up by my mother. She certainly never chose to be a single parent, she worked when she could, and now that most of us are grown up we work, and…actually, you know what? Screw this. I’m tired of justifying my existence to Iain Duncan bloody Smith. I refuse to accept that my mother ‘ruined the lives of others’, as IDS characterised this behaviour at the weekend, just by being my parent. (No ex-boyfriends or former housemates are invited to comment.) Which brings me to my next point.
Three: if IDS wants to punish parents, then for what? For what? There is nothing illegal or immoral about having more than two children (it’s environmentally unsustainable, certainly, but with an ageing population in this country we’re going to need big numbers in the next few generations, if only to foot the bill for adult social care). While middle-class parents may be characterised as annoying, no-one would dare to castigate them simply for the act of bringing up children, and nor should they. Bringing up children well is an expensive public service – ask any local authority. What makes a family work is not how many children are being cared for or how many parents are doing the caring, but the quality of care. With that in place, our – and Duncan Smith’s – only concern should be making sure they have enough money to do it.