Child benefit spent on treats? Get real, say parents
There are few parents who will not be watching anxiously for news of changes in child benefit payments when Budget 2013 is unveiled in the Dáil on December 5th.
While paid work can come and go within a household, and other social welfare supports are subject to applications, reviews and delays, the child benefit is at least one source of dependable monthly income for the mother towards raising a child – even if it falls well short of the true cost.
A study by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice earlier this year highlighted the gap between the direct costs of a child and the social welfare supports. It found that a child at second-level – the most expensive stage of a child’s life – cost €144.92 a week in an urban household and €140.20 in a rural one.
The next most expensive phase is infancy, with babies costing more than €90 per week when cared for at home and between €260 and €296 if in childcare.
Cut in rates expected
There has been much speculation about what the Government will do with child benefit in the budget. It is believed that the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, is determined to maintain the universal nature of the payment but a cut in the current rates (see figures) is expected.
Those in the much-squeezed middle class fear they will lose out again if a two-tier system of lower payment with a means-tested top-up is introduced. The concern of those on social welfare or low incomes is that even if they are entitled to the top-up, delays in means-testing will push them into hardship.
Of course some parents may abuse child benefit and some may not need it, but the vast majority of families depend on it to maintain day-to-day living. Their circumstances determine whether that means spending it on food, heating the house, paying private health insurance or funding after-school activities.
But the days of mothers putting it by for an annual shopping spree in New York, or siphoning it into a “running away” account in case their husband becomes unbearable, must be well gone – if they ever existed outside the realms of urban myth.
A few months ago a Kildare mother of four, Hazel Hayden, got increasingly annoyed at all the talk of impending cuts in child benefit and decided she had to make the voice of “ordinary” mothers like her heard.
“I felt I couldn’t take any more – how was I going to pay my mortgage? I got the fight into me.”
When she floated the idea on Facebook of having a petition and rally, she was joined by, among others, Niamh Uí Cheallaigh, a mother of five in Carlow, who was involved in the Parents Against Child Unfriendly Budget (Pacub) campaign that was formed at the time of the emergency budget in 2008.
A new Pacub – Protest Against Cuts to Child Benefit – is an alliance that both women are campaigning with in the run-up to Budget 2013.
“I think there is a lot more anger and action this year than there was last year,” says Uí Cheallaigh. There is concern about a two-tier system and means testing.
“How poor will you have to be to receive it and will they keep reducing the level?” she asks. Hayden was disappointed with the turnout for the march they held in Dublin on November 3rd. But Uí Cheallaigh says even if the attendance of a few hundred was small, they got a very positive reaction on the streets.
This Saturday they will be joining the pre-budget protest march organised by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions.
In Uí Cheallaigh’s household, where the five children range in age from 11 to one, and her husband has a full-time job, the child benefit money is spent on bills and buying some extra food.
“I am trying to put some money away for Christmas – a lot of people are trying to do that at the moment,” she adds.
Hayden, whose children are aged 17, 14, eight and two, works four days a week in a semi-State job and her husband works full-time. They are in negative equity on a house they bought from the council. Then there is the cost of childminding – “that is like a little mortgage in itself. It doesn’t really pay for me to work but, because I am in a secure job, I have to hold on.”