Sunday, 6 January 2013

Child Benefits

One inevitable consequence of living in another country is that you don't always stay on top of politics at home.  For example, yesterday I saw an article on the BBC about UK child benefits:
Some 200,000 people - of 1.2 million - have opted out of receiving child benefit, ahead of changes on Monday.  Treasury Minister David Gauke said that was "slightly above" what was expected.  Families with one parent earning more than £50,000 will lose part of the benefit. It will be fully withdrawn where one parent earns above £60,000.  But unless parents opt out of receiving it by the end of Sunday, higher earners will still get the benefit and will have to pay it back later.
The point of this news article is about how the changes to child benefits are working.  In particular, the system where benefits are by default paid but then must be repaid is not exactly efficient, and will probably be unpopular.  The fact that only one in six of the families affected by the new rules have acted suggests that the policy has not penetrated popular consciousness.

But as someone who hadn't seen the changes, I respond to them instead.

Historically, child benefits in the UK were paid to all parents, independent of means.  The principle was simple.  Obviously, the payments are of most value to the poor, and are intended to reduce child poverty.  But by benefiting all families, the program can count on the support of the middle class, for whom a little extra cash will be useful.  It also emphasizes commonality, important in a culture as historically classist as Britain.

The Tories have no doubt justified the new policy as part of their general program to cut the deficit, pursuing the goal of austerity that even the IMF has recently cooled on.  But the introduction of means testing will inevitably weaken support for these benefits.  Once the main recipients become the poor, a few stories in the right-wing press about poor families spending the cash on booze might just turn enough people against the whole idea.

I might be over-thinking things, and it's odd to find myself arguing in favour of the government spending money on the rich.  Still, when it comes to politics I far too often find I'm not cynical enough.

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