Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Hands Off Universal Child Benefit

As David Cameron invites the nation to suggest public spending cuts, one thing that seems to be square in the government's sights is universal Child Benefit. What support there is for this appears to rest on two reactionary and annoying 'arguments':

1. That children are a private indulgence of their parents, who should therefore meet the costs themselves.

Actually, matey, they are the continuation of the human race, and therefore the human race collectively bears some responsibility towards them. Moreover, Child Benefit covers a bare fraction of the real cost of raising a child, but it is a useful contribution.

2. That rich parents do not need or deserve Child Benefit and it should therefore be means-tested. This 'argument' is bugging me, as it is superficially appealing but an abuse of people's class consciousness and rightful anger at the rich.

The fact is that once a benefit is means-tested, it is the poor, more than the rich, who lose out. Means-testing means that you have to apply, that you need to be able to navigate the system, to fill in the forms, to reapply periodically. Means testing still carries stigma, as well as practical difficulty. Nearly every means-tested benefit has an unsatisfactory take-up rate.

It also costs the state a great deal more money to administer a means-tested benefit than to give out a universal benefit. A large proportion of the money it would save, it would have to spend.

But why should working-class people's tax pay for rich parents' child benefit?! The answer is simple: pay for it with rich people's tax instead! Give them the Child Benefit with one hand, take their excess wealth for the common good with the other.

And keep Child Benefit universal.

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