Photo: Philip R Jones
The vindictive policy that punishes children for having more than one brother or sister
Last year, in his summer Budget, George Osborne announced a couple of measures designed to penalise large low-income families. One was the reduction in the Benefit Cap, from £26,000 to £23,000 in London, £20,000 elsewhere. The limit mainly applies to people who need to claim Housing Benefit for high rents. That is mainly families with children.
As I pointed out when the new Cap came into effect, three quarters of the people hit by the Benefit Cap are children. It’s also the case that 80 per cent of the families losing out have three or more children.
The other measure that focuses on large families is the new Two Child Policy. This limits the number of children qualifying for the Child Element in Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit to a maximum of two. There’ll be exemptions for adoptions, multiple births and rape (though women will have to provide evidence from a “professional third party, that the circumstances are consistent with those of a person who has had intercourse without consenting to it (at a time when the conception of her third or subsequent child might have resulted”).There’s a consultation on these exceptions, and I’d encourage everyone with experience or knowledge to send in their comments.
It’s plain from this that the government has decided that having more than two children is unreasonable if you’re on benefits. This ignores, of course, the people who thought they had secure jobs and then were made redundant, the mothers abandoned by their partners, the couples who each had two children when they met, the families with a wage earner put on a short-time contract and needing to claim Universal Credit to supplement a pay packet that is no longer big enough.
But I also disagree with a more fundamental aspect of this policy: the assumption that having more than two children is reckless. It certainly isn’t terribly unusual: last week the Office for National Statistics published their annual report on Childbearing for Women Born in Different Years, England and Wales¸ which looks at how the size of families has changed over time. It compares the number of children had by women born in different years when they reached the same age.
The report includes a table for family size distribution for women who have finished childbearing. They are assumed to have reached this point when they are 45, so the most recent cohort we have is women born in 1970. 1943 is the comparison year because the average age of mothers in 1970 was 27.
It’s certainly true that women born in that year have smaller families than their mothers:
…But it’s also true that more than a quarter of modern mothers have three or more children. This is unlikely to have fallen a great deal for younger women: in 2015, 26 per cent of women born in 1975 and 1976 had had three or more children.
The government wants you to believe that the only people hurt by this policy are the feckless few. In fact, it can hit families that have been unlucky, not improvident. It can potentially hit more than one family in four. And, at the end of the day, the people who bear the brunt of this policy will be children. Making them more likely to be poor to force a change on their parents is an extraordinarily ruthless approach.