Why do we think there’s a magic solution to child benefit?

If there is anything that really gets up the nose of the right it's single mothers on benefits. No, in fact it's any parents claiming benefits, as the sorry media sage around Mick Philpott demonstrated.

If there’s anything that really gets up the nose of the right it’s single mothers on benefits. No, in fact it’s any parent claiming benefits, single or otherwise, as the sorry media sage around Mick Philpott demonstrated.

There seems to be a widespread public perception that many individuals are having children simply for the purpose of milking the social.

It is impossible to assess the truth of this claim – there is, after all, very little in the way of ‘proof’ as to the motivations of those on benefits – but that doesn’t stop the the right making the insinuation repeatedly. Open today’s copy of the Daily Mail and it’ll be in there, somewhere – it always is.

One of the most common mistakes in politics is the belief that all supposed problems can be remedied. There is something infantile and childish about this “if I were king” complex.

Child benefit is a case in point.

The number of large families claiming child benefit is incredibly small – in May 2011 just 2 per cent of families who claimed at least one out of work benefit had five or more children. But even if we accept that mothers having children solely in order to claim benefits is a problem (which I will come on to in a second) , why do politicians and the public believe that anything substantial can be done about it?

Acknowledging as much will of course cause ‘outrage’ in some quarters, but these are the facts: you either pay parents sufficient child benefit to support their children regardless of what their imagined ‘motives’ are, or you punish children disproportionately (for what have they done wrong?) by taking away or reducing the money available to them.

It’s really that simple. Should the state punish children for the decisions of their parents or shouldn’t it?

Is a sense of injustice at the fact that some parents may be popping out kids in order to rip off the taxpayer a good enough reason to create even more injustice by subjecting those children to unnecessary hardship?

Considering that it isn’t child benefit, but rather pensions that are draining the welfare state the most, I would say no.

There is also the fact that bringing up a child is a job in its own right (or at least there are strong arguments that it should be considered as such). Indeed if anything, we should be encouraging people to have more children to pay for a rapidly aging population.

The children of today are after all the taxpayers of tomorrow – i.e. the people who will be paying for the incontinence pads of today’s Daily Mail leader writers. The rate at which the population is aging means that while there are now four people of working age supporting each pensioner, by 2035 it will be just two and a half and by 2050 only two.

Instead of lamenting people for supposedly claiming cheques for ‘unlimited babies’, we should recognise that there is no perfect child benefit system. One that allows for a few rogues but provides an adequate safety net for the majority is infinitely preferable to a system that punishes children based on whose body they had the misfortune to emerge from, however.

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