Improvements for families and children but legacy of cuts persists
Budget 2016 analysis: Social welfare
Budget 2016 offers a lot to families and children, with improvements in childcare provisions and a continued increase in child benefit rates.
However, these must be seen against a backdrop of eight years of budgets that have inflicted deep cuts, particularly on the poorest children in the poorest families.
In this, the budget will disappoint many – especially lone parents, the group that suffers the greatest poverty – and the young unemployed. Both have seen big cuts in incomes and will see no increase in their core welfare payments.
Those who will take some hope from the social welfare and childcare measures will be pensioners, whose weekly payments increase by €3 a week, and new fathers who from January will be entitled to two weeks’ paid paternity leave. Also benefiting are parents of children under 12 needing GP care, who will now get this free, and – in the first week of December at least – all long-term welfare recipients who will get a Christmas bonus worth 75 per cent of their weekly payment.
Introducing the details of the package from her department, Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said the purpose of this budget was to improve the lives and living standards of every family in the country.
With 376,000 people in consistent poverty – up from 195,000 in 2008 – some families’ living standards need a lot more improvement than others. Children in particular are at greatest risk of poverty. The proportion in consistent poverty has almost doubled since 2008, from 6.8 per cent of all children to 11.7 per cent, or 138,000 children, in 2013.
Measures to target these are included in the budget, but others that could have been are not. Child benefit will increase again. It was increased last year by €5 a month, to €135, the basic rate having been cut from a high of €166 since 2009. It is now €140 a month per child.
Though any increase is welcome, one wonders why the qualified child allowance, which is paid, per child, to the poorest families – ie those dependent on welfare – was not increased from €29.80 per week.
The impact of changes to the one parent family payment introduced in 2013 – probably the most controversial of Burton’s welfare reforms – has been ameliorated.
While lone parents will still have to move on to a jobseeker’s transitional payment once their youngest child reaches seven, they will not have to seek work. Also, the income disregard – the amount they may earn before being means-tested for support –has been increased from €60 a week to €90.
While welcome, it is not close to the €146.50 disregard they enjoyed on the one parent family payment until 2011. Some 23 per cent of lone parents families were in consistent poverty in 2013.
Income thresholds for the family income supplement – a support to working poor families – have been increased by €5 and €10, for families with one, or two or more, children respectively. However, calls for a decrease in the hours-per-week threshold to qualify, from 19 to 15, were not heeded.
The most positive reactions have been to the range of new childcare supports detailed by Minister for Children James Reilly. The extension of early childhood care and education will be boon to parents of children aged between three and five.
However, with just €3 million being directed at after-school care, the vast majority of working parents of schoolgoing children will still have to make their own childcare arrangements.