Proposal to cut child benefit short-sighted
OPINION:A reduction in the universal payment could mean increased child poverty with fewer working mothers prepared to remain in the labour force, writes EVELYN MAHON
ONCE MORE child benefit is on the agenda as the Government continues to seek ways to reduce expenditure.
Child benefit has played a major role in the recognition of both mothers’ and children’s needs in Ireland. The women’s movement in the 1970s lobbied successfully to get it paid to mothers rather than fathers.
Mothers have a special position in the Constitution and the State is required to ensure they “shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties”.
How does the State give practical effect to this aim?
It recognises the work of married women in the home through tax allowances paid to their husbands via a family-based taxation system. These allowances are paid on the basis of wives as housekeepers, or for their wifely rather than maternal labour.
The result is that married men (with a wife full-time in the home) pay less income tax than single men on the same wage.
Child benefit entered the policy agenda in a major way in 1992 when the second Commission on the Status of Women had to consider ways in which women could be facilitated to participate in the labour force on equal terms and conditions with men.
One of the major issues on the agenda was the provision of childcare. Ireland had then the lowest provision of such care among European Union member states and still remains well behind other countries.
The commission proposed that in addition to providing childcare facilities, a tax relief for those expenses should be introduced for people who made private childcare arrangements.
The later proposal led to a debate between women, with some arguing that women who stayed at home to look after their children should have their work as care-givers recognised.
There was a fear that mothers’ work in the home was unrecognised and this would continue if the “liberal agenda”, which promoted the employment of women in the labour force, advanced.
Thus, the demand for tax allowances for childcare payments was accompanied by another demand for a form of care-giver parity for women who chose to remain in the home.
These developments and the different interests of women meant that the provision of State-supported childcare was pushed off the political agenda.
Despite this setback, the commission outlined an infrastructure for the development of childcare in the future. The same issues were raised later in the Commission on the Family in 1998.
That commission provoked a variety of responses and decided in the end that a universal child benefit paid to all parents would satisfy the competing demands of different women.