Proposal to cut child benefit short-sighted

Wed, Oct 3, 2012, 01:00

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.

It was also the most affordable option at the time. While not assisting working mothers, it would not discourage women from working and the allowances in part recognised the work of “mothering”.

The subject of childcare provision and/or tax allowances for childcare remained on the equality agenda. In addition to this the issue of child poverty was also on the social partnership agenda in 2000.

The outcome was a decision to proceed with one form of support for mothers with children – a universal payment.

For employed mothers it helped compensate for the fact that they got no tax allowances for their children as dependents, no subsidised childcare and no tax allowances for the cost of that care.

For those women who worked full-time in the home child benefit has been seen as a recognition of their work. And for lower-income families it makes a contribution to their basic income.

As such, universal child benefit played a major role in social partnership agreements in the past.

In Ireland universal child benefit has played a considerable part in reconciling work and family lives for employed taxpaying mothers, especially given the absence of childcare provision.

There was an early childcare supplement payment between 2005 until 2009, whereby €1,000 was paid to mothers for each child under the age of six in an attempt to offset childcare costs.

This was stopped in 2009.

While it was later replaced by the early childhood care and education scheme, whereby children of pre-school are given between 10 and 15 hours per week in childcare, this change constituted a major saving to the State.

The proposed reduction in child benefit therefore fails to live up to earlier complex social partnership negotiations in which recognition of mothers’ work in the home, the costs of raising children per se and the cost of childcare for working mothers were all intertwined.

This one universal payment has been put there to carry a lot of varied claims from mothers in a variety of circumstances. Any reduction in it will reactivate these older issues and in time fail to realise any savings.

It may in turn also reduce our birth rate, reduce the number of working mothers in the labour force and increase child poverty.

Dr Evelyn Mahon is associate professor of sociology in the school of social work and social policy in Trinity College, Dublin. She is principal investigator in a European Union research programme titled Flows, on the impact of local welfare systems on female labour force participation and social cohesion

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