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

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.