by Gabrielle Pickard
11 March 2012. Cheshire, United Kingdom. “Come over for a cup of tea and we’ll put the world to right”, I told my friend on the telephone who sounded teary when she rang to say that she needed cheering up. Five cups of tea and two hours later, listening to my friend complain passionately about the government’s changes to the welfare system and benefits cuts, I felt as depressed as she did. My friend, Jenny, is a 56-year-old grandmother of ten grandchildren all under the age of ten. Her two daughters are single mothers, out of work and, needless to say, are struggling to put food on the table for their five children, their anxiety deepening as the landlord’s threats of eviction become progressively more unforgiving.
In 2010, during his campaign to become Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron made an ambitious promise for his government to become in his own words, “the most family friendly government we’ve ever had in this country.” Two years down the line what have we seen? We’ve seen child benefits being frozen for three years, families with a household income of more than £40,000 will have their eligibility for tax credits reduced, the baby element of tax credits which meant families received pay until their child is one abolished, plans announced to make single parents work once their child is in school, the abolishment of the health in pregnancy grant that saw all women received a £190 one-off payment beyond their 25th week of pregnancy to help them eat well in the run up to giving birth, a restriction of the eligibility to the Sure Start Maternity Grant to the first child only – a one-off £500 payment for those on a low income to help towards the costs of a new baby and, most recently, the announcement of a £26,000-per-household cap on housing benefits.
The cuts, both proposed and already processed, have caused a wave of criticism in the UK, with critics claiming that the austerity measures will unfairly hurt children of large families and that it is the poor who will bear the brunt of the cuts – You are now beginning to understand my friend’s anguish over the future of her two daughters and ten grandchildren.
In a statement made by the Children’s Commissioner for England, who promotes the views and interests of children and young people in England, Dr. Maggie Atkinson basically summed up in a sentence what Jenny had been whining about for two hours:
“Families who receive welfare benefits are particularly vulnerable because they live in poverty – small changes in their household income can have a big effect on their welfare. We are concerned that many more families and their children will be pushed out into absolute poverty over the coming years if these proposed changes go ahead.”
But perhaps the austerity measure that has caused the most outrage for its “anti-family friendliness” is the announcement that from 2013, the government will withdraw child benefit from families whereby one or both parents are in the higher income 40% tax bracket, meaning they are earning more than £42,475 a year.
The perceived ‘outrageousness’ of this announcement is twofold: Firstly, because of the ‘irrational mathematics’, that will result in a family in which both parents earned, for example, £40,000 a year, still receiving child benefit, and a family where one parent is out of work and the other earns £42,475 a year having their child benefit stopped. Secondly, since the Family Allowance was introduced in Britain in 1946 providing benefit for families with children, to which child benefit became its predecessor in 1977, it has been claimed by nearly all families with children, regardless of their income. That means even David Cameron’s parents, Mr. Cameron being a stockbroker and Mrs. Cameron the daughter of a British army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Malcolm Mount, 2nd Baronet, received child benefit.
David Broom is a plumber from Devon in the south west of England and is aghast at how ‘devalued’ mothers in Britain have become.
“During my childhood being a mother was considered important. Now they don’t value mothers at all in the UK. All these cuts aimed at mothers are proof of how devalued mothers have become. Now they aren’t worth a tuppence!” said Mr. Broom.
The 59-year-old is also dismayed at the ‘ludicrousness’ of the housing benefit cap.
“Do you realise how many people are going to be made homeless in London when housing benefits are slashed? And as a consequence to a decrease in rented properties, house prices will drop like a stone in places like London, which relies on the rental market.”
“A family renting out a property in the north of England might be OK, but families renting in the south, where the cost of rent is significantly higher, will be forced onto the streets, costing the government more in the long run! How can you have a housing benefit scheme that isn’t regional? The government simply hasn’t done its homework!” declared Mr. Broom.
Although not everybody shares Mr. Broom’s censure of the British welfare system reform.
Alison Howarth is a 46-year-old mother of one who moved to Spain in 2005 from England to escape the rain, ‘yob culture’ and in her words, “complicated benefits system that are favourable to immigrants rather than British people.” When hearing on the news that David Cameron was proposing to put a cap on housing benefit to what equates to £500 a week, Mrs. Howarth felt incensed, not because of the austerity measure, but because British tax payers are paying for jobless ‘scroungers’ to live in often ‘luxury’ accommodation.
“I have paid tax all my life in Britain. Why should it go into the pockets of those who view having kids as a commodity?” said Mrs. Howarth.
“For the last seven years I have received no child benefit whatsoever. If my husband and I can manage to get work in a rural farming town in inland Spain and make ends meet without any state help whatsoever, I find it hard to believe that people in Britain can’t get by without money being handed to them on a plate,” Alison Howarth continued.
When asked what the ‘solution’ was to the situation Mrs. Howarth believes that benefits should be based on ‘what you put into the system’.
“In Spain, for example, a family is only eligible to receive child benefit when the household has been paying national insurance contributions for so long. Why can’t Britain implement a similar system, instead of the bureaucratic, unfair and senseless system they never fail to come up with?”
Whilst most have not taken such a drastic step to escape the ‘bureaucracy and unfairness’ as Mrs. Howarth took by emigrating to Spain, many share her views that there should be even stricter benefit caps and measures implemented.
Claire is a mother of two who works as an administration assistant in Manchester and receives just short of £16,000 a year and, like Mrs. Howarth, is in favour of the benefit caps the Coalition Government is making.
“I work hard and with two children to feed and clothe and a mortgage to pay, unlike many of those receiving more than £30,000 in benefits a year for watching daytime television, I don’t have the time or money to play hard,” said Claire. “The Government has a huge deficit to pay, of course there’s got to be cuts made.”
When asked what would be the ‘solutions’ to making Britain’s welfare system fairer, Claire supports just paying benefits for one child.
“One solution would be to only pay child benefit for one child and this may deter people from using having children as a means of getting money,” said the 32-year-old mother of two.
The sentiment, however, in Jenny’s daughter’s house could not be more different. As her daughter slumps into five minutes of peace after a chaotic morning getting the kids ready for school, she looks in the newspaper for jobs that, as she puts it, ‘simply aren’t there for people like me.’
“How can the government take so much off people when there aren’t the jobs there to give them the opportunity to replace the money that has been snatched from them?” Jenny sighs.
Gabrielle Pickard is a freelance writer based in Cheshire, United Kingdom.