Child Benefit - A Christian Social Policy

Why is it so important as Christians that we defend Child Benefit?

Child Benefit is unconditional, and it’s never reduced. The Child Benefit given to the main carer of a child in the wealthiest family in the country is exactly the same as the Child Benefit given to the main carer of a child in the poorest family in the country. It doesn’t matter how much a family’s earnings increase: their Child Benefit doesn’t change. Child Benefit therefore reflects the fact that we are created equal – every one of us is created in the image of God, and no distinctions are made (Genesis 1:26). Child Benefit reflects the centrality of ‘grace’ – the unmerited love of God – to the Christian Faith: ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all’ (Titus 2:11). Child Benefit reflects the fact that Jesus made no distinctions when he healed those who approached him.  No questions were asked of the paralysed man or of the friends who brought him to Jesus (Mark 2:1-12). And Child Benefit echoes the parable of the vineyard owner, in which every worker was paid the same; no matter how much work they had done (Matthew 20:1-16). It might be true that none of these passages represent a direct interest on the part of Jesus or of their writers in a modern benefits system, but they do represent a Kingdom of God to which we are invited to bear witness; and it is a pleasure that our society already bears witness to that Kingdom in the form of Child Benefit, and that we can bear witness to that Kingdom by celebrating Child Benefit.

A couple of clarifications:

Different amounts of Child Benefit are received by the first child in each family (currently £20.50) and by the second and each subsequent child (currently £13.55). Whilst this treats different children differently, it remains true that every family with the same number of children will receive the same amount of Child Benefit.

In September 2010 the Conservative Party Conference heard that the Government was planning to means-test Child Benefit – and many people believe that this is what has happened. It has not. The new policy appears to have been announced without experts in the benefits and tax systems having been consulted. The plan was to withdraw the Child Benefit of any household containing a higher rate taxpayer. The problem was that there is currently no way in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (which administers both Income Tax and Child Benefit) can reliably connect Child Benefit recipients with higher-rate taxpayers. So Child Benefit remains unconditional and non withdrawable, and every tax return contains a question asking the taxpayer whether they live in a household that receives Child Benefit. If they do, and if they pay Income Tax at the higher rate, then they find themselves paying more Income Tax than if they did not live in a household with children. The result is a tax on children, which is somewhat bizarre. An unfortunate and no doubt unintended consequence of all of this is that a man who is not the father of the children in his household can find his tax bill increasing. Some children’s mothers are withdrawing their Child Benefit claims in order to reduce the resulting domestic tension.

For our purposes the important consequence of all of this is that Child Benefit is still universal, unconditional, and non withdrawable. Child Benefit therefore continues to reflect the character of the Kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his life and in his teaching, and to which we his followers are invited to bear witness.

Other universal benefits bear witness to the Kingdom of God in the same way. The National Health Service is free at the point of use. No-one is charged for visiting their GP, for hospital admissions, for outpatient appointments, or for Accident and Emergency treatment. Whether services are provided by the public sector or by private companies is irrelevant to this point. What matters is that nobody has to pay, and that we are all treated the same. The wealthiest person in the country will pay exactly the same as the poorest person for a visit to their GP, for a heart operation at their local District General Hospital or at a regional centre of excellence, or for treatment in an Accident and Emergency Department. They will pay nothing.

The Winter Fuel Allowance, received by every citizen of pensionable age, is yet another unconditional and non withdrawable benefit: and it will remain so, and will remain a witness to the coming Kingdom of God, if the main political parties can resist the urge to means-test it. There is no reason to means-test it: the rich pay more in Income Tax than they receive in their Winter Fuel Allowance; the Allowance is incredibly cheap to administer, whereas to means-test it would be expensive; and no claim form has to be completed, and no stigma is attached to universal benefits, so those who  need the Allowance the most will receive it, whereas if it went only to the poor then stigma would be attached to it, a complex claim form would have to be completed, and the least well off would be far less likely to receive their entitlement.

If we want our society to continue to witness to the Kingdom of God in these ways, then we might need to defend these social policies. Even though means-testing is inefficient, counterproductive, and irrational, we frequently hear calls for benefits and services to be means-tested. Christians need to be saying not only that our current unconditional and non withdrawable benefits need to stay that way, but also that more benefits should be like this. To take one example: it is perfectly feasible to pay a Citizen’s Income: an unconditional and non withdrawable income for every individual as a right of citizenship. Maybe Christians on the Left should be campaigning for it.

 

Malcolm Torry is the Director of the Citizen’s Income Trust and the author of Money for Everyone: Why we need a Citizen’s Income (Policy Press, 2013). He writes in a personal capacity.

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commented 2014-10-17 22:59:24 +0100 · Flag
If the kingdom of God is about us all being equal then child benefit is tinkering at the edges! Lets look at some truly radical policies that shows that every human being is valued if we are really going to love our neighbours.
commented 2014-09-12 12:55:07 +0100 · Flag
Politicians, as a whole, have got themselves in a terrible tangle with means-testing. Those on the right fear for “tax-payers” money. Those on the left, lacking the courage of their convictions, echo the right.

The dominant ideology is whether it is good for business (so that, in fact, business can scoop the money off to tax havens, and not pay for public services), but what business does not realise is that having a population living at the margin is not good for business.

What is now needed is for new leaders, new political parties to rise up, use the power of the internet and get some sensible dialogue on the issues of the day.

There is a rude word to describe certain types of politician, like Ian Duncan Smith, with his bedroom tax. I hope there is enough intelligence and street-wise savvy around to enable us to move forward from such-like individuals. We won’t create the Kingdom of God on earth, but we can, at least, try.





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