Child benefit spent on treats? Get real, say parents

Tue, Nov 20, 2012, 00:00

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.”

Protest movement

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.”

‘Not a treat’

They are typical of the squeezed taxpayers who are trying to keep the country going, says Hayden. Their weekly wages go on the mortgage, childcare and household shopping.

“When we get the child benefit, it is the ESB, the oil, the mobile phone – it is used for all our utilities and if the kids need a prescription.”

On a good month it might stretch to buying the children a bit of underwear, she adds. “I am not buying myself a thing. This thing of people saying it is for a treat – it is not a treat.”

What do families spend their child benefit on?

Yvonne McKenna, full-time clerical worker and separated mother of an 11-year-old daughter living in Collon, Co Louth.

Child benefit goes on:€60 towards oil and ESB, the rest of it towards school costs and clothes for my daughter, who is in sixth class.

How would a cut affect you?I have a mortgage and couldn’t pay that without having the children’s allowance for the oil and the ESB, etc. I am one of many who are helping the Government by going out to work and paying my taxes. If I gave it up I would be on benefits with a council house.

What should the Government do?Leave it alone because it is for the children – regardless of who you are and what you’re earning. No point in having a referendum on children’s rights and then taking the money from them. They should look at the TDs’ salaries.

Final word:Enough is enough – there’s anger and fear out there and plenty of sleepless nights.

Annemarie McNally Rice, part-time secretary and mother of two children, aged seven and three, and a 19-year-old, living in Limerick.

Child benefit goes towards:Playschool costs for my three-year-old son and after-school care for my seven-year-old daughter when I am working. Next month I have it pinned for winter coats and boots for the children . . . there’s always something it needs to go to and it’s always for the children.

How would a cut affect you?I am not sure if I could continue sending my son to playschool.

What should the Government do? Leave it alone. I don’t think it should be means-tested because where would they stop? I think they should concentrate on taxing people who earn a certain amount of money.

Final word:I am lucky my husband is in full-time work and I can’t imagine how families without somebody working manage. But you do start to question would you be better off giving up part-time work and it is awful to be even considering that.

Erin Allen, out-of-work legal executive and mother of two children, aged five years and five months, living in Bray, Co Wicklow.

The child benefit goes on:Electricity one month and gas the other, with anything left over put by for extras I have to get, such as winter coats for myself and the children this month; also to pay for after-school activities for my daughter – ballet and swimming, which are very, very important for her.

How would a cut affect you?Less food on the plate. My partner’s income pays the rent, groceries and other essentials.

What should the Government do?Leave it alone or, ideally, restore it to the €166 it was when I had my first child five years ago. I have no faith in the Government’s ability to means-test it in an egalitarian manner.

Final word:There is a need to look at supports for mothers to return to work.

Maria Moulton stay-at-home mother of three children aged four, three and 10 months, whose husband is on jobseeker’s allowance and retraining, living in Dublin.

Child benefit goes on:Our oil and other household bills. I would love to be able to put it aside for something wonderful and educational.

How would a cut affect you?It would mean having to pare things down even more than they are being pared down.

What should the Government do?Look at Iceland – they are doing the reverse of what we are doing. There the higher earners are taking the bigger cuts – it’s common sense.

Final word:If the Government had an efficient system to means-test child benefit it would make sense, but it doesn’t and would probably end up costing more than it would save.

US citizen Andrea Mitchell, mother of two children aged one year and two years, living in Leopardstown, Co Dublin.

Child benefit goes:Into our general account. We decided to put our two-year-old into pre-school so it goes towards that.

How would a cut affect you?On paper we have a very good income but once the mortgage and bills are paid . . . I don’t know what we are going to do if it’s cut. When you are used to getting something, everybody needs it.

What should the Government do?In the US there is a tax deduction if you have children but it is really nice to have something allocated to the children here.

If they were to cut it, it would be a huge benefit if they would help with pre-school for two year olds instead.

Final word:The child benefit is subsidising choices that help the primary carer get back to work sooner. By putting our two year old in pre-school I can do a little freelance work from home.

Jacqui Owen, lone parent of a 13 year old, unemployed and “desperately” seeking work, living in Mallow, Co Cork.

The child benefit:Is the difference between being able to afford heating or pay the electricity bill.

Ideally I would like to put it away to save towards college fees for my daughter but it is not doable. My daughter wants to do extracurricular activities, such as dance, but I can’t pay for them.

How would a cut affect you?Last year’s cuts had a huge impact.

I will go without having dinner to make sure my daughter gets a proper dinner – things are that tight.

There are times when I haven’t had any money at all but I am lucky that I have family around to help me out.

What should the Government do?Leave it alone until the recession has eased off and people are able to find jobs.

It should be means-tested for people who are living comfortably and able to put it away.

Final word:I don’t think the Government realises how much people depend on the children’s allowance.

Tara Dalrymple, mother of two children aged one and five, living in Galway, runs BusyLizzie, offering business and lifestyle services.

The child benefit goes on:General household expenditure for the children and their activities but it doesn’t cover all that. It doesn’t cover even the essentials.

How would a cut affect you?It won’t affect us as hugely as it would other people but it is the principle of the thing I am most angry about – it always seems to be families and kids who are being affected.

What should the Government do?There are things that everybody can see need cutting that they don’t want to talk about – like exorbitant pensions and travel subsistence for trips that don’t bring any money into the country.

Final word:It is the one payment that goes to mothers, who bear the brunt, and it doesn’t go on fripperies – it goes on things like nappies.

Corrinna Moore, stay-at-home mother of five children, aged one, four, six and 10-year-old twins, living in Dalkey, Co Dublin.

The child benefit goes:Into our general household account but it helps pay for the children’s activities, among other things. I do feel the higher rate for twins is needed because you can’t use hand-me-downs and when it comes to things like shoes, school uniforms, schoolbooks, Christmas and birthdays, you have to buy two of everything – there are some things they can’t share.

How would a cut affect you?I am not working and it is the only income that recognises the job that I do. If, for instance, your husband or partner is questioning something being spent on the children, you can say that is what the family allowance is there for and he can’t really argue with that.

What should the Government do?Taxing it for higher-income families would probably be the fairest solution.

Final word:This helps the stay-at-home mother – it is not for me to get my hair done but goes on the children.

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