by Emma Head
Last week, Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), Secretary of State for Work and Pensions gave a speech where he made a case for ‘cultural change’ in government and society concerning the role of the welfare state. IDS’s view of the British welfare state is that it leads individuals and families into long-term ‘dependence’ on benefits and discourages individuals from moving into paid work: ‘instead of supporting people in difficulty, the system all too often compounds that difficulty’. From this political position, the welfare state does not meet its founding aim of providing a temporary safety net, but traps the individual in a net they cannot escape from, and discourages them from wanting to strive for a life off benefits. The media coverage of this speech was interesting as it focused mainly on one aspect - the issue of family size for welfare recipients. In this speech IDS had asked, ‘should families [on benefits] expect never ending amounts of money for every child… when working households must make tough choices about what they can afford?’ In an interview IDS suggested that those with large families should have their benefits capped and suggested that this cap could be applied once a family living on benefits had two children. This time the question IDS posed was ‘can there not be a limit to the fact you need to cut your cloth in accordance with what capabilities and finances you have?’
This idea of a two child family for those on benefits was widely reported and generated lots of online discussion. More than 1000 comments were made on this story on both the BBC and Mail Online sites. IDS was tapping into a theme that Conservative politicians have rehearsed before, most notably by Jeremy Hunt on Newsnight. IDS also seems to be tapping into ambivalent social attitudes towards larger families and a deeper discontent with the ‘choices’ that those on welfare are perceived to have.
It seems unlikely that this idea of a benefits cap based on family size would become a policy measure. If it did, what impact would it have? As with a number of Coalition government strategies, underlying this plan is an assumption that people make ‘choices’ that are economically rational. The rationale for a benefits cap based on family size, assumes that individuals know and rationally weigh up the financial costs and benefits of children long before conception. If this is the case, then this policy would save money in two ways: by limiting the welfare spend, and by shaping the decisions we make around family size. However, sociologists know that people often do not respond to policy initiatives in ways that follow economic rationality, and certainly not when we get into the territory of sex and reproduction. Research evidence tends to suggest that around 50 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned, so some larger families are by accident rather than by design. Additionally, larger families make up only a small percentage of families in receipt of welfare and there is no good research evidence to document the claim that families continue to have children as a means to secure welfare payments. In terms of child benefit, an additional child adds an extra £13.40 a week to the household income.
In financial terms then, this kind of benefits cap would not have any significant impact on the government’s welfare budget. So what was the aim of this speech? If we look at the language IDS uses throughout the speech, one aim seems to have to been to continue a current theme of Conservative government to construct a particular image of British society and the welfare state. Here, we get an image of British society divided into two classes. The majority are the responsible taxpayers in 'working households' who live according to their means, who save money where possible and whose choices are curtailed by the reality of their financial situations. Two examples that IDS gives here are the working families who have to limit the number of children they have, and the young adults who remain living with their parents while they save money to buy a flat. This class is presented as in need of protection from those who are dependent on welfare. The minority on welfare are presented as able to exercise ‘choices’ that are out of reach of the majority, they can get ‘never ending amounts of money for every child’ and the young adults of this class move from parental home to their own home ‘without finding a job first’. Of course, this latter point might also apply to the children of the very rich in society, who don’t get a mention here.
This is a problematic, and socially divisive, version of Britain. In IDS’s speech we get the sense that these are two stable groups, however, this is not the case. Most people of working age who are reliant on welfare, will move into paid work at some point in the future. And many in the responsible taxpayer class are only a redundancy letter, relationship break up or illness away from claiming welfare. These two groups are also not so easily separated. Many adults in paid work are dependent on tax credits to supplement their low wages, to fund childcare, or both. Those who live ‘on welfare’ still pay taxes, for example, through VAT on goods and services. It also detracts attention away from the huge differences in material wealth of those in 'working households'.
Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of IDS’s speech is the idea that life on welfare is characterised by ‘choice’ - to have as many children as a family decides, to move into independent housing when adult children want. What gets lost here is the reality of life for those reliant on welfare payments. This reality is more likely to be one of enduring hardship, not endless choice.