Justice for children is not the focus of Budget 2018
If Government had prioritised the good of children, this budget would look very different
Budget 2018 would have looked entirely different and been much more just, if it were designed from a perspective of targeting the needs of children. File photograph: iStockPhoto
A dear friend of mine who died last July used to say that children are not the future. They are the present.
For significant numbers of Irish children, the present is grim. Some 3,000 are without a home. About 128,000 are in consistent poverty, which means their families have less than 60 per cent of median income and they are unable to afford things such as shoes and a warm coat.
And of course, for some children, it is far worse than that. Any of the Child Care Law Reporting Project publications will contain descriptions of children living in dirty, chaotic and sometimes violent homes, or experiencing traumatising levels of neglect.
Then, there is institutionalised neglect on the part of the State, such as afflicts children in direct provision for asylum-seekers. They did receive a tiny increase of €2.50 per week for adults and €6 per week for children in June, bringing the allowance to €21.60 for children and adults. This was the first raise in 17 years.
There was no further increase in the allowance for these families in the budget.
Then there are the children of lone parents, a group with very high levels of poverty. In a deeply cynical move, the Government released an independent report by Indecon on the impact of cuts in the one-parent family payment the day before the budget. As planned, minimal coverage ensued.
The findings are stark. Since 2012, parents with children over seven are excluded from the one-parent family payment, which had previously been available until the child was 14.
Even though some people who were able to access full-time employment had an increase in income, 48 per cent experienced a loss of income instead.
Therefore, many lone parents have moved from poverty on social welfare to poverty in low-paid work.
Some 43 per cent indicated the cuts had worsened their sense of wellbeing, while only 23 per cent reported an improvement. Similarly, 40 per cent suggested their children’s sense of wellbeing had disimproved and only 21 per cent said it had improved.
Meanwhile, the Government has saved €45 million, but is it a real saving? Or is it just kicking the can further down the road in terms of disadvantage for children?
There were some good things for lone parents in the budget, like increasing the amount they can earn to €130 a week before their benefits are affected (though still not restoring it to pre-austerity levels.)
The €5 weekly social welfare payment increase, and the household income threshold for the Working Families supplement increase of €10 for families of up to three children, along with new housing initiatives, will also be helpful, but are nowhere near enough to help the poorest children in our society.
Reduction in ratio
Children in poverty will probably also be helped by the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level, but so will children who are already advantaged.
Long-term social welfare dependency is good for no-one, and the majority of lone parents don’t want to be in that situation. There is no substitute for a good job for lifting people out of poverty.
But there is also no substitute for spending time with a mother or father.
The “parent” part of one-parent family seems to be ignored. The Indecon report references childcare twice, but I could not find any reference at all to parenting responsibilities.
However, there is a reference the OECD report, Babies and Bosses: Reconciling Work and Family Life.
But Indecon does not report the notorious statement from Babies and Bosses, that from a labour market perspective, mothers leaving the paid workforce represent “a waste of investment in human capital and an inefficient use of labour force potential”.
Babies and Bosses, among other things, addressed the disastrous decline in fertility in the developed world, with all the problems it would bring in terms of pensions, ageing populations and health costs.
It still could not see the value of parents working at home.
As Anthony Giddens, the British sociologist, once said: recognising the virtues of markets is quite different from prostrating oneself before them.
If worship of the market demands getting all parents into the paid workforce, caring relationships such as parenting become an impediment, rather than a good in themselves.
The budget’s childcare provisions reinforce this view, and not just for lone parents. On Minister for Children Katherine Zappone’s watch, the emphasis is on provision of institutional childcare.
From the State’s perspective, being the primary carer for one’s own children apparently should not be a priority for either lone parents or two-parent families.
The home carer’s tax credit was introduced to soften the harsh and inequitable blow of tax individualisation in two-parent families, where one parent chooses to stay at home. In this budget, it was increased by less than €2 a week.
It is a sop and always has been, and ignores the fact that most families still choose care by a parent whenever possible.
The budget was “here’s something for everyone in the audience”. It would have looked entirely different and been much more just, if it were designed from a perspective of targeting the needs of children. For many children, the present will be just as grim after the budget as before it.