The state can't afford to cut back family support

Children are not a private luxury but the future workers and taxpayers of this country. Labour should pledge to reverse the fall in the value of child benefit.

The dog days are upon us and like most parents, I’m scrabbling around for childcare and searching for affordable activities for my child. The summer holidays cost – but as new research published by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) shows, an ice cream here and play scheme there is just the beginning of it.

Cost of a Child in 2013 documents the minimum income required to bring up a child in the UK today. It draws on JRF’s on-going work, which regularly asks members of the public which items they think we should all be able to afford. What emerges from this exercise is a consensus that families need enough to cover the bare essentials such as food and shelter, but also require a modest amount to enable them to participate in normal social activities too.

The numbers are enough to make anyone sit up and think: the research estimates the minimum acceptable cost of a child over 18 years is £81,722 for couple, and £90,980 for a single parent. (The figure for single parents is higher due to the fact that there is only one adult in the family to offset some of the children’s costs by reducing their own). Add in childcare costs and the numbers increase still further - to £148,105 for couples and a staggering £161,260 for single parents, over the 18-year period.

The figures illuminate why families with children are generally at a higher risk of poverty than other groups in society: costs sky-rocket when we have children yet our earning power is compromised by childcare responsibilities. In recognition of this, the state helps us smooth our incomes over the course of our lifetime through the provision of child benefit and, for lower-income families, child tax credits too.

But as the report documents, both these sources of support have diminished considerably in recent years. Child benefit was frozen in 2010 and has consequently lost one-seventh of its value; tax credits look set to wither away in a similar manner as they are uprated at a mere 1% over the next three years.

With earnings lagging behind costs as well, it’s not surprising that a couple with two children working full-time on the minimum wage today net only 83 per cent of the minimum income they require. While the same couple can just about reach an adequate standard of living on the median wage – our national mid-point - a single parent family in the same situation is still almost 10 per cent shy of a decent standard of living.

There’s a question, of course, as to how much the state should help parents with the costs of their children. But children are not a private luxury as some current political debates like to suggest. Instead, they are the future workers and taxpayers of this country and supporting families with their children’s costs is more accurately seen as an investment, not the deadweight cost it is often presented as.

Labour has indicated that restoring child benefit to higher earners would not be a priority if it were in power but has remained silent on whether it would seek to restore the benefit’s real value to its 2010 level. Meanwhile, the coalition is proposing to pay childcare costs to families earning up to £300,000 between them, while through universal credit it will compensate only those earning more than £10,000. And the Conservatives are set to unveil plans later this year to introduce a married couple's tax allowance. But as far as I know, once the wedding is over, married couples don’t have any additional costs, so it is hard to see any rationale for it.

Meanwhile, think tanks such as IPPR have gone on record numerous times to suggest that child benefit be frozen for a decade and the money redeployed to pay for additional childcare support. The Cost of a Child report shows what a self-defeating strategy that would be: subsidising childcare by cutting child benefit is giving with one hand while taking away with the other. As we move towards the 'living standards election' of 2015, all parties need to think harder about how we re-commit to all our children - as we did after the Second World War through universal family allowances – we need to find more funds and better ways to help families at all income levels, working or not working, with the costs of a child.   

Washing hangs out to dry above children's bikes on the balcony of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories