Socialism and social responsibility

NS October 5th, 2010

I am proud to live in a country where everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) has access to a free-at-point-of-use health care system.

I am proud to live in a country where socialism or socialist-leaning systems are not looked upon with fear, disgust and horror, like they are in my home country.

I am proud to live in a country where many women (though not all) have the opportunity to stay at home with their children for up to a year and not lose their jobs as a result.

That’s not to say that everyone who lives here likes these things or approves of how they are set up or run, but overall, the majority are happy to live in a state where (in theory, anyway) everyone is looked after. It’s never been nor will it ever be a perfect system — some people will always be looked over and given appalling care while others revel in and are rewarded for their riches and privileges, while yet others milk the system to their advantage — but at least that safety net is there, even if it’s got holes in it.

I’m bringing all of this up because the media and the parent blogs are alight this week with talk of the proposed axing of child benefit from homes where any person earning a salary of more than £44,000 per year resides. At first glance it seems fair. Earning more than £44k should not put a family in hardship, surely they don’t need the extra cash, right? After all, that’s double the average national wage!

Two things not take into consideration with this proposal (or, if they have been taken into account, discounted as not important) are cost of living in different areas of the country and single income families earning above the £44k cut-off. How exactly is it fair to say that a family living on £42,000 in the very expensive London or the South East should be on level pegging with a family in, say, Grimsby, where the cost of living is much lower?

The second and more infuriating problem with this proposal is the fact that it completely discounts single income families with children to support. And who makes up the vast proportion of single income families with children to support? Single mothers and at-home parents (usually mums) whose spouses or partners work full time.

Put more plainly, child benefit will remain for families where one or both parents work but each earn less than £44k. Dual income families who earn, say, £30k and £40k respectively (for a combined income of £70k), will keep their child benefit while the single parent earning £45k won’t.

Now, I realise that there aren’t perhaps all that many single mums and dads earning more than £44k a year, but it still doesn’t seem fair that those who earn a good but certainly not extravagant salary may not receive child benefit when a family earning nearly double that will. Because let’s not forget that a single working parent usually pays the largest proportion of their income to childcare than any other family since they have to pay for someone to look after their children not only during the work/school days but also at evenings and weekends if they need or want to go out without the children.

Also significantly affected will be families where one parent is staying at home to look after the children and their partner earns more than the proposed cut-off point of £44k. A family of four or five (or more) living on less than £50k in London is not all that much. It may sound like a lot but after you take out tax, travel, housing, living expenses, food, etc.. for all members of the family, it really doesn’t leave you with much. I know because we were that family until very recently,when my husband got a promotion and a pay rise and I began pulling in a bit more money with my self-employed endeavours. Until then, we lived paycheque to paycheque and were unable to save or invest a single penny. Even now there are months when an unexpected car repair or a growth spurt requiring new clothes and shoes for one of the children can put a real strain on our finances. Child benefit has saved the day more times than I can count and I have truly appreciated it over the years.

Essentially, this proposal penalises single mums (and dads) and families where only one parent works while the other stays at home with the children. But does that come as any real surprise to those who voted for a Tory government? I could’ve told you before this cut was announced that large swathes of the working class and the struggling middle class would be most affected, a disproportionate number of whom are women.

However, I can understand that cuts have to be made somewhere and that it is a bit ludicrous when extremely high earners are receiving a not-insignificant sum of money each month simply for having a child or children. I agree that those earning six figures (or quite near it) do not need child benefit, but £44k?  I don’t think that salary, particularly in the South East, is extravagant for people who have dependants.

The thing is, it’s impossible to put a number on need. You can’t possibly know each family’s circumstances and whether the loss of this benefit would actually hurt them or not affect them at all. That’s why I think it’s perhaps counter-productive to take away the right to this benefit (at least at the proposed level). I have a better idea.

Any psychologist or sociologist worth her salt will tell you that people respond better to rewards than they do to threats. Hell, any parent of a young child or pet owner can tell you that! So maybe instead of taking away a benefit from a group of people that may or may not desperately need it, we start with the ones who most definitely don’t.

Why don’t we stop child benefit for those earning high five or six figures or more and invest that money into a social program wherein those who fall in the ‘questionable’ range of £40-80k (this is a ballpark figure and would depend on location, family size and personal circumstances) are awarded child benefit but have the opportunity to voluntarily rescind the award in return for points in a ‘social responsibility bank account’ of sorts.

Each time a person or family does something socially responsible (such as install solar panels,  grow their own veg, care for children, volunteer at a non-profit or community organisation, quit smoking, reduce water consumption, provide a safe place for teens to gather and socialise, voluntarily give up a state benefit they no longer need, or any other activity that is deemed beneficial to the greater good), they would receive points in their account. After a certain number had been collected, these points could be redeemed for the purchase of items and services.  These items and services would be partially funded by the state (generated by the funds no longer outgoing in child benefit to top earners) and partially donated by private, ethical businesses  in return for free advertising, priceless PR and the feel-good factor of being involved in such a project.

I’m aware that this is a simplistic, idealistic plan and I’m sure someone will be along to tell me why it would never work ‘in the real world’, but it’s the kind of thing I wish the government was thinking up instead of the same ol’ tax and spend loop that we’ve been stuck in for decades, with everyone getting screwed somewhere along the way.

What do you think about the proposed cuts to child benefit? Do you have any ideas for how we can get this country out of its financial mess without shafting the hardest working and most disadvantaged?

31 Responses to “Socialism and social responsibility”

  1. Expat Mum says:

    I commented on Jenography about this and said I didn’t think families earning 44k should get child benefits. In fact I don’t think many people should get child benefits unless they are practically living on the poverty line. I think I’ve lived in the States too long, but I now see that the plethora of handouts in the UK encourages an attitude of entitlement in some people.
    However, I didn’t appreciate the ridiculous situation you’ve explained whereby a dual income family might still get it, while a single parent earning almost half of the couple might not. That doesn’t make sense at all but is bloody typical of politics these days – sweeping decisions and ill-conceived projects.
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    NS Reply:

    @Expat Mum, I know that some people do milk the system and take benefits that they don’t need, but I think their numbers are way overstated by the likes of the Daily Mail, et al. It’s the ‘welfare queen’ and ‘benefit cheat’ myth that the right-wing media likes to perpetuate and get themselves into a lather about when, in reality, the number of people on benefits/welfare who don’t truly need it is very small compared to those who do. Instead of penalising people who may really need that benefit because a minority cheat, it seems more fair to simply reward people for acting responsibly with what they are given.

    For example, a friend of my husband’s has a council flat that he has lived in for many years. He most assuredly needed that flat and help from the council when he was given it, for reasons I won’t detail but which, suffice to say, were pretty horrific. It took him a long time to sort himself out but now he is in a steady job and earning a good salary. He could move out of that council flat since he doesn’t technically need it any more but he likes living there and it has become home to him. He’s spent his own money doing the place up and is looking to buy it from the council soon.

    I guess you could call him a ‘cheat’ since he’s living there when he technically doesn’t need it, but he’s being responsible and looking to buy the flat instead of continuing to lease it from the council. When he does buy it, the council will receive a large sum of money which will be put back into the system that helped him when he was down and out.

    Expat Mum Reply:

    @NS,
    Council housing isn’t really a comparison since many residents actually pay rent for their homes, and it isn’t necessarily cheap either.
    However, this – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1318028/As-families-face-benefits-cuts-Kelly-Marshall-spent-4-500-BOOB-JOB.html

    ….shouldn’t be allowed to happen either. A mother of five (to four different men) who makes so much on welfare that she can now afford a boob job!
    As far as I’m concerned, she should lose her child benefits!
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    NS Reply:

    @Expat Mum, Ah, but see, child benefit is exactly what it says it is – a benefit for the CHILD, not the mother. Taking away child benefit from the child to punish the mother for what is considered socially unacceptable behaviour is tempting, I’m sure, but not fair on who really counts: the child.

    I look at a woman like the one in this story and feel not anger, but sadness. She obviously has some issues going on in her life if she hadn’t had a good education, has had unstable relationships with the fathers of her children and feels that getting larger breasts would help her out in life somehow. It’s not uncommon for women who feel they have no other opportunities or skills to rely on their sexuality and bodies as ‘currency’ with which to trade.

  2. Iota says:

    I really love your idea for social responsibility points. Would the points be redeemable for benefits for the individuals, or do you think they should go towards the school of your choice, the charity of your choice, or the hospital of your choice? Maybe both options could be available.

    Blimey, Noble Savage. Have you ever thought of standing for election?

    I don’t agree with Expat Mum. I really admire the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude in the US, but in my book there has to be a good safety net too, and I don’t see enough of that here. You have to have a huge income here, before you can feel secure. I’ve occasionally (for fun) talked about child benefit to friends, and watched their faces as they’ve asked “what? you get money? for your children? just for having a baby? but it’s your CHOICE to have a baby… and everyone gets it? even if you are a millionaire?”

    I agree with you, though, that it’s unfair that a dual income family might still get it, whereas a single parent might not. Surely the benefit is aimed at the welfare of the child, and therefore it’s the child’s circumstances which should determine whether it’s paid – if there is to be differentiation.
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    NS Reply:

    @Iota, That’s an excellent idea, Iota. It would be nice to have either option — redeem for items of personal use or get even MORE points by donating them to a school, charity, etc.. Do you want to be my running mate? ;-)

    The mentality you describe, where it’s everyone’s individual choice to have a child and therefore their sole responsibility, is the American way. United we stand, divided we fall my ass. More like divided we stand, united we fall.

    Iota Reply:

    @NS,

    Why are so many Americans so AFRAID of socialism? Is it because they perceive it as one step away from Communism? There’s such FEAR about it here. Fear based on ignorance, as so often – perhaps that’s it.

    Have you seen the BMB discussion of this issue? Lovely comment there which suggests sterilising people who have children and can’t afford to raise them (assume it’s a joke, but one never knows).

    Yes, I’ll be your running mate.
    Iota´s last blog ..Bless youMy ComLuv Profile

    Expat Mum Reply:

    @Iota, To defend myself a bit – I didn’t actually praise the American system one iota, Iota. There are far too many people here living on the breadline – who are gainfully employed too!
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    NS Reply:

    @Iota, I am no longer a member of BMB so luckily did not see that horrid comment! Many people do feel that way, which is frightening to me. I hope it was a joke.

  3. Sandrine says:

    This does look like a ridiculous situation, and, coming from the Tories, it will almost certainly affect women more…
    I don’t like the expression ‘feeling of entitlement’ that Expat mum uses in her reply. In social situation it only really applies to those who are on the lower echelons of society. But it’s a good thing that they should think they have a right to living a decent life. As Adam Smith said, no human being should have to feel ashamed to appear in front of others. So yes, it’s healthy to want to have enough that other people don’t look down on you. Feeling you have to work harder or be luckier to have what others are handed on a plate because they were lucky (i.e. male, white, upper class, born near a good school, etc). Now, if you’re talking of the feeling of entitlement that some rich white males have because they are rich white males, I’ll scorn along with you.
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    NS Reply:

    @Sandrine, A great comment, I agree.

    Expat Mum Reply:

    @NS, Re – “feeling of entitlement” – first off, I said “in some people” – let me give you my reference.
    My sister is a child psychotherapist and works with local government and schools in dealing with abused children. The amount of parents she meets who have never worked a day in their lives (and were brought up that way too) is astounding. They left school after hardly ever attending, and went straight on the dole. It has never occured to them to get a job (if they could) because they know they can “earn” far more on benefits. The fact that other Brits are paying taxes to fund their (not really that modest) lifestyle fails to register. They are the norm in some communities.
    As I said in my 2nd paragraph, I recognise that there are many cases where child benefit is appropriate. My initial comment about the entitlement, I believe, was qualified with the word “some” and was not an indictment of the entire system
    Having seen what’s going on over here, with people going bankrupt over healthcare and retirement issues, I remain unabashedly a diehard liberal, nay Socialist. (Arrghhh – keep that quiet, I may have my phone tapped over here!)
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    NS Reply:

    @Expat Mum, I read the other day that the US government is looking to be able to read emails and hack into computers as well as tap phones, in the interest of ‘national security’ of course. Nothing is safe now!

    Expat Mum Reply:

    @Sandrine, My phrase “attitude of entitlement” was qualified by the words “in some people”. Let me give my reference – my sister is a child psychotherapist and works with abused and neglected children referred by schools and the welfare system. The majority of the families consist of parents who left school (if attended) as soon as they could, and went straight on the dole. Invariably, they were raised on benefits and had parents who never went out to work. The idea that they are living at the expense of others either doesn’t occur to them or doesn’t bother them. They literally have the mentality that they are better off with their benefits and there’s no point in working (a whole nuther discussion point.)
    Obviously, (stating the obvious) this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I’ve never actually seen the point of giving child benefits to people who didn’t need it, and there’s no doubt that it allows SOME people a lifestyle they should bloody well go out and work for.
    I live in a country where there is not much of a safety net so I know what happens without a government funded system, but there has to be some balance.
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  4. MrsW says:

    Raise general income tax :)

    Actually I’d be happy if to forgo Child Benefit (we’re a 1 earner family just below the threshold – may be on it by 2013) if they’d just let me transfer my unused tax allowance to my OH – at least then we would be on level pegging with 2 earners each bringing in half his wage. I hate being a dependant, not a state dependant… an invisible MAN dependant.
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    NS Reply:

    @MrsW, Ooh, that IS irritating, I hear ya. I would also be okay without the child benefit but only in the last few months could I say that. Before, we needed every penny of it.

  5. cartside says:

    The proposal is just plain unfair. I’m really baffled why it’s not family income that’s considered, rather than individual income. I can’t see any reason for taking this bizarre approach, even from the Tories.
    And yes, there should be an allowance for people living in London/south east. And Edinburgh, that’s an expensive city to live in too. Or there could be a system where you get more benefit the more children you have – it’s ok to manage with one child maybe, but if you have 2, 3 or more?

    I like your idea of the social responsibility fund. THough I’d go further and suggest that salaries need to be adjusted to reflect social contribution of the job. I.e. a childcare worker should earn more than a car mechanic because surely it’s more socially responsible to educate a young child than it is to fix a piece of tin.
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    MrsW Reply:

    @cartside,

    Have you read this Steffi? http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/bit-rich

    I’ve only skimmed.. I must give it the attention it deserves since I’m sure I could happily quote from it til the cows come home :)
    MrsW´s last blog ..Take your place in lineMy ComLuv Profile

    cartside Reply:

    @MrsW, yes, know it and love it, one of the best docs ever written methinks.

    Also there are different and fairer ways of working things out. it wouldn’t do any harm to get some inspiration from how things are done in other countries.
    cartside´s last blog ..6 step plan to boost the minority languageMy ComLuv Profile

  6. Iota says:

    Cartside – I like your social responsibility salary adjustment idea – though it couldn’t work, could it? How on earth could it be assessed? Why is it more socially responsible to educate a child than to fix a car? We all need cars (most of us, anyway). Even the childcare worker. But I like the idea.
    Iota´s last blog ..Bless youMy ComLuv Profile

    NS Reply:

    @Iota, Yes, I agree that it would be impossible to assess the relative ‘worth’ of different careers. We’ve pretty much already got that system in place and it isn’t fair to women since jobs in female-dominated industries are the worst paid.

    This is where my very-nearly-a-communist side comes out and I wish we could all just barter and trade skills instead of working like mad just to pay one another in cash. What if the mechanic fixed his childminder’s car and they called it even stevens on the daycare bill for a couple months? Seems much more sociable to me. Damn the Commies that got too greedy and didn’t run it properly!

  7. jen says:

    i’m against these cuts. but i’m also against the cuts which are being implemented across the board. i dread 20th Oct when the comprehensive spending review is released.

    these cuts (and so many of the others which are being and will be proposed) are supposed to ensure that the monies which are spent are only focused on the neediest in society, and that those that can get by without, do so. but they are usually a false economy – the number of people who are *just* getting by with that little bit of extra support, is impossible to know. and it these people who, once that small bit of help is withdrawn, tip into much greater categories of need and dependence… and more expensive.

    unless child benefit truly becomes a means-tested safety net, it is impossible to predict what the fallout will be.
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    NS Reply:

    @jen, I’m against most of the cuts coming up too. And it does seem as if the most vulnerable are going to pay the price for how badly the fat cats in this country screwed things up. Salary cuts and bonus suspensions? Never! Ax benefits for children, single mothers and those with disabilities? Of course! Makes me sick.

  8. Difficult one. 44K has been chosen because it marks the start of the higher rate tax bracket; it’s also plainly ludicrous that a single mum on 45K could not claim it for three children, but two earners on 40K could claim it for one child. Surely there has to be a better way of working it out? Perhaps there needs to be a ‘super rate’ tax bracket for people with an income of 70K plus, say, where they can’t claim any kind of benefit? Winter fuel allowance for instance – I know of at least one 70 year old in my immediate family who claims this and spends it on expensive wine….
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    NS Reply:

    @nappyvalleygirl, See, if I was Prime Minister, your 70-year-old relative could’ve just given that winter fuel allowance back and gotten points in his/her ‘social responsibility account’ and traded those points in for the wine! ;)

  9. afteriris says:

    I’ve been trying to articulate why this particular cut bothers me so much; the myriad reasons why their reasoning is poor and their action unfair, but all I really want to say is I HATE THEM I HATE THEM I HATE THEM. And that’s not the strongest argument, is it? But I really, really do.
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    NS Reply:

    @afteriris, Ha! The temptation to stomp and throw things around while chanting childish slogans *is* very strong indeed.

  10. What worries me is that child benefit is income that goes directly to the person caring for the children giving them a degree of financial independence. A non-income earning parent who is more likely to be the primary child-carer entirely relies upon what the income earner chooses to give them. Removing child benefit from single earner families removes a degree of financial independence from those most likely to use it to benefit the children.
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    Tasha (Coding Mamma) Reply:

    @PantsWithNames, That is exactly my concern. (Keep meaning to write my own post on the topic, but it’s far easier to just go comment others’!) This was extremely important when it was brought in and, while it isn’t necessarily a feminist issue anymore (though arguably it is still the woman who’s most likely to be in that position), it is still really important for self-esteem, worth and so on for the non-earning partner to have an income and so a share in the decision-making process. (And so on…)
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  11. monique says:

    This is a tricky one, although cuts have to be made I think they are being made in all the wrong places. Living in London, 44,000 as a family income, as you said is not much at all.
    Why did they have to create such sweeping generalizations and apply to the whole country? Why not reduce the age of the child benefit and keep it enforced? For example, in Canada there is the Universal Child Benefit that all families get until the child is 6 – why not reduce the age that families receive the child benefit until? What about tax credits for the family who is a sole income household and has to support a family?

  12. Blue Sky says:

    I was involved in the PACUB campaign in Ireland last year opposing all changes to child benefit, which has really helped to reduce child poverty in this country. It is also efficient, simple to administer and fair to all children. It ensures that all families have an income no matter how their circumstances change (I had to live on it with my kids for a month). If you believe that the rich have too much disposable income, then tax them more. Most of these other option are just complicated and expensive to administer. Why the obsession with child benefit?
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