Children cost. A lot. New research published today shows that raising a child from birth to 18 requires a minimum of £83,155 for a couple, and £96,905 for a lone parent family. (In case you are wondering, it costs a lone parent more than a couple to bring up a child because there is only one adult to make offsetting savings from their own living expenses).
There’s a lot going on behind this eye-watering figure. Part of the story is the well-known fact that costs are rising, and rising fast. The price of food – a quarter of the basic budget required for a child – has risen at 25 per cent in the last six years; housing continues to consume a growing share of a family’s budget; and the price of childcare – which can amount up to 45 per cent of the total cost of a child if both parents work full-time – continues to increase apace.
The other side of the story is equally well rehearsed. Family incomes remain under pressure as earnings flat-line and support from the state is cut back year on year. Unsurprisingly, the gap between the amount needed to raise a family and incomes is widening: a couple with both parents working full-time at national minimum wage is now 18 per cent shy of the income required to support two children at a minimum level. For an out-of-work couple, the shortfall is even more alarming: they lack 43 per cent of the necessary income to bring their children up adequately.
All this goes to the heart of why families with children have a higher risk of poverty than those without: children bring additional costs to a family while at the same time constraining parents’ earning power. Recently released figures show that 27 per cent of children live in poverty in the UK today, and this figure is set to rise. Yet the logical link between children’s costs and child poverty appears to have broken down in policy makers’ minds of late.
Rather than supporting families, child benefit will have been cut by almost 15 per cent in real terms over the course of this parliament, and the value of child tax credit has been set on a steady downward track too. While the government has announced a number of policies that help parents with costs at source – the extension of free school meals, for example, or additional nursery provision for very young children – the simple truth is these interventions do not come close to compensating families for the losses they have experienced as a result of austerity.
It’s clear there could be worse to come. It wasn’t that long ago that Ian Duncan Smith flew a kite proposing state support for families be capped at only two children to ensure claimants “cut their cloth in accordance with what capabilities and finances they have”. The idea hasn’t gone away: it emerged in a different guise only yesterday when a leading think-tank proposed that child benefit be tapered away with each additional child, and the over cap on benefits reduced to penurious levels.
By (falsely) pitting the ‘hard-working’ family against the ‘welfare-dependent’ in debates, the government has often tried to suggest a link between benefit receipt and irresponsibility with respect to family size that simply doesn’t exist. Is what we see creeping back into the political debate the age-old argument that poor people should not have children until they can afford them? When two parents working full time cannot net enough to cover the cost of a child, this could be a long wait…
Children are not a private luxury – they are a delight in themselves and an asset to the nation. Retreating from policies that help parents with the cost of children is a sure-fire way to degrade this asset by driving up child poverty. But the reverse is also true. If we want to put the UK back on the right trajectory with respect to child poverty – and polls suggest that many want just this – restoring the value of children’s benefits, and establishing a mechanism to maintain that value over time, has must be an essential part of the strategy.
Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.