A third source to boost living standards: the family

Policymakers should seek to mitigate the barriers to the giving and receiving of financial and practical support between family members.

Alongside tackling the deficit, the government‘s priority is now tackling another major economic problem: the rising cost of living, caused by a mix of stagnant wages, a real terms reduction in benefits, and inflation. But with public spending constrained and economic growth still fragile, policymakers need to think creatively about solutions beyond the traditional reliance on the state or the market to help struggling families.

A recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group and Joseph Rowntree Foundation demonstrates the scale of the problem for families on modest incomes: over the past year the average cost of raising children has risen by 4% for those also paying for childcare. 

To boost family incomes, policymakers tend to fixate on two levers: the state or the market. Either government, through increased cash transfers or reduced taxation, or businesses, through increased wages, are called upon to do more. Under the last Labour government, cash transfers from the state to low-income families increased substantially with some notable successes, such as the reduction in the number of children living in poverty. The coalition government has prioritised reducing income tax. Recent emphasis has shifted to the role employers can play in boosting income: there is campaigning from across the main political parties to increase the minimum wage and spread the voluntary living wage to more employers.

The state and market should do more to help alleviate poverty. But the current economic conditions limit their reach. So it is also worth exploring how a third major resource can help improve family incomes: a person’s wider family.

Already, a significant minority of households receive regular financial support from their wider family, predominantly their parents. It is estimated that about 1 in 6 households regularly receive financial help from their parents with the average received in one year about £1,400. The national annual flow of such transfers is estimated to be about £1.2bn. But this undervalues the scale of transfers taking place: it misses out those who receive money through inheritance, which is estimated to be about £30bn a year.

Forthcoming research from the Social Market Foundation found that many on the lowest incomes, especially those experiencing circumstantial poverty due to unemployment or divorce, receive significant financial support from their parents, often worth thousands of pounds. And in-kind support such as the provision of childcare and shopping is also common and saves households significant amounts of money.

The family, then, is often a major but hidden form of welfare. Its impact can be quite remarkable. There can be a considerable improvement in living standards of low income families who receive support from parents: they are better able to work or train, and afford a wider range of goods from children’s clothes to holidays.

Policymakers should seek how to mitigate some of the barriers to the giving and receiving of financial and practical support between family members. Obviously, the lack of familial exchange may be explained by geographical or emotional distance between relatives. But there are other barriers such as money and time: for example, especially with cultural and governmental expectations to work for longer in older age, grandparents will have less time in the week to provide support.

Employment for older people could be more flexible. Since the late 1980s, DIY retailer B&Q has encouraged older workers, with a quarter of its workforce now over the age of 50, by ensuring flexible working – including for caring responsibilities – is part of the company culture. Maybe this could be nudged along by making parental leave, especially parents’ unpaid entitlement, transferable to grandparents if unused?

To tackle the financial constraints some families face, maybe tax efficient, high-interest multigenerational family trusts could be established to encourage low-income families to build up a pot of money to help different generations in testing times?

This year’s Budget – with announcements to help families with childcare, petrol and housing costs – showed that the government is focussing on measures to boost living standards for those on modest incomes. But policymakers will need to think creatively and draw on multiple sources: the state and the market, yes, but also the family.   

About 1 in 6 households regularly receive financial help from their parents with the average received in one year about £1,400. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.