child benefit, the law of unintended consequences

You know how it is, sometimes, when you have to let the heart of darkness shine through. This is one of those times…

One of the comments made me think, as they should 🙂 on my careless use of Gore Vidal’s comment

it is not enought to succeed, others must fail

in my post on entering a family-unfriendly economic system

I’m not actually that mean. I don’t take any particular pleasure in seeing others take the shaft here, and I don’t expect to gain from the withdrawal of CB from the better off. It’s not like I suddenly expect to get a non-child benefit, and somehow I don’t expect any tax cuts to happen while I am still working 😉

However, I do wonder if Labour’s approach of trying to eliminate child poverty by slinging cash around didn’t have some pretty ropey results that we are going to have to live with for a long time.

What’s that again – how can any right-thinking person be against an attempt to reduce child poverty?

I can. And before I get hammered for being a mean and nasty child-hating SOB who wants children to be poor, it may be necessary to point out that not being for something doesn’t necessarily mean I am for the converse. If you are not intellectually up to understanding that, please read no further!

There are some things that are assumed to be good regardless. A reduction if poverty is always good, natch? What kind of mean-spirited git must this guy be, does he want to see the workhouse and children sweeping the chimneys?

Well, get this.

the government’s target of halving child poverty by 2010 is defined in terms of relative poverty. [1]

Now that, I do have a problem with. The trouble with relative poverty is this (from the same reference)

The reason that we believe that relative poverty is important is because we believe that no one should live with “resources that are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.

I didn’t realise that Labour had changed the definition of poverty to this. (oops, they didn’t change it at all. My bad, see SG’s comment and BBC reference below) and To me child poverty means being cold, not having enough to eat, being deprived of emotional connection. It doesn’t mean not having a mobile phone or a games console.

The problem here is that I believe there is more variation in intellectual talents, drive and capability that can be encompassed by the spread which is inherent in the definition living in a household with less than 60% of the median income.

Don’t get me wrong – if there were an easy way to prevent this happening (ie households spending < £100 a week excluding housing costs) I’d say go for it. It is when it has the result of bankrupting the country

that I start to think it’s gone too far.

There are other things that are wrong with this sort of social engineering. When I was at school, the average number of children per household was 2.4. Most people think it’s the poor that have all the kids, but there is some economic effect on people’s decision of how many children to have. It first struck me when I started at my current company, at the callow age of 28, just how many people there were there with three children, and in some cases four or five. These were people who were reasonably well-off at the time.

For more recent examples,  David and Samantha Cameron have three children. Nick Clegg and his wife have three sons. Ed Miliband has two, the Browns had three kids, the Blairs had three. I’ve chosen politicians because this information is easy to get hold of, but it shows having larger than usual families isn’t just something the poor do. I would say that where there is more money around, people have more kids than the replacement norm of two, just not the crazy numbers we associated with the Victorian poor.

And so finally I reveal my heart of darkness. If poverty is measured relatively, why did we throw money at people who have poor prospects so they could have more children than their economic situation permitted?

Relative poverty isn’t about putting food on people’s plates, or heating their homes. It is so that they can live the typical lifestyle people are accustomed to. Child poverty is about having a mobile phone and being able to go on school trips these days.

Let’s take a moment to think about this for a moment. My parents didn’t have a television set when I was a child. Does than mean they were poor? I don’t have a mobile phone personally. Does that mean I am poor? No. My parents, and I, think for ourselves, and we choose not to spend money on things that other people regard as essential needs…

Benefits are about securing the bottom two of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When we drift into the upper reaches we run the risk of distorting behaviour. These children will continue to have poor prospects, all other things being equal. Having children isn’t the sort of thing that improves your economic situation in industrial economies. Once poverty in terms of the lowest parts of Maslow’s needs have been addressed, it becomes devilishly hard to address the others. Everybody has a mobile phone and Playstation? There’ll be a new set of consumer thneeds that the kids will think they need. And so on and so on.

So by sponsoring the poor to have children, we are actually damning more children to poverty. These are children that wouldn’t exist were it not for the distorting effects of well-meaning efforts to reduce child poverty. The reason for this is that social mobility has dropped in Britian from a high-water mark in the late 1960s.

Why has social mobility dropped in Britain? According to Blanden et al this is because of the right cods that we have made of university education because we couldn’t man up to the task of telling some of the little darlings that their classmates were brighter than them. So we make the exams tell everybody they are great, and tell wannabe university students that of course there is equality of opportunity, as long as they can pay about £65k for the fees. Then we wonder why for some reason there are fewer kids from poor backgrounds going to university. D’oh, perhaps the reason is they can’t find the money?

So all that, in a roundabout way, is why I’m asserting that the result of efforts to attack child poverty by paying the poor to have more children than they can afford may result in more child poverty in the future, as the poverty echoes down the generations. Perhaps we should have been smart here and only sponsored the first, or first and second child.

I can relate to addressing child poverty in terms of food, heating etc. But in terms of relative poverty, then what on earth does success look like?Is there a standard kit of consumer goodies children should have not to feel left out? Do we take the rich kids’ toys away and give them to the poor kids? Oh, and shouldn’t we have asked ourselves what success looks like before we embarked on this journey, anyway?

There’s a separate argument about whether we as a society want people to have more kids rather than, say, importing people for the workforce. However, if that is the issue, then we want to sponsor rich people to have kids, because they will push them and help them educationally. We’ve actually been doing that for a while, and have only just recently announced that we want to stop. Perhaps we are going about this all the wrong way.

We really need to have the courage and honesty to ask ourselves what it is that all this social engineering is aiming to do, rather than starting out with a muddle-headed goal like eliminating relative child poverty. If we want bright kids to become the dynamic knowledge workforce that will drive Britain into the 21st century, then we first need to fix the education system so we can distinguish the bright kids, and we probably wouldn’t go about it by sponsoring the people to have children that we’ve been sponsoring for the last 10 years… If their kids are bright we’ve queered the pitch for them educationally so they can’t afford to get ahead anyway.

It doesn’t greatly upset me to be 4% poorer to do this sponsoring. But it does upset me that we don’t seem to know why we are doing it, we have chosen a metric that seems to be unachievable by definition, and that by our actions we might be adding to the sum total of human unhappiness in Britain to come as the extra children of the poor have extra children themselves. The road to hell is paved with good intentions…


  1. exclusion.shtml

7 thoughts on “child benefit, the law of unintended consequences”

  1. Interesting post. That the socialist-leaning party were aiming to eliminate a form of relative poverty rather than absolute should not really be surprising! Income equalisation is what socialists do.

    It must be true that the choice of a relative goal was in part political: welfare handouts win votes, so justifying handouts based on an unachievable target is a way to perpetually win votes. Add in the calculation that the opposition will never have courage to say they will cut benefits… it’s so simple.

    I wonder also to what extent this strong claim is true:

    “These are children that wouldn’t exist were it not for the distorting effects of well-meaning efforts to reduce child poverty.”

    The anecdotes of young girls who get pregnant to get on the benefits treadmill (particularly council housing) must be based in truth.

    But people have always had families anyway. The bottom end of the income distribution is not where you would expect people to be making coldly rational long-term financial plans before getting in to bed. (Excuse the bluntness)

    So I’d be surprised if Labour’s welfare state has significantly moved the statistics on family size. I would expect the far more significant effect would be on employment and the wider working economy; invoking the anecdote of the army of stay-at-home mums being subsidised not to work.


  2. A lot to agree with here. The current poverty definition was not invented by Labour – it’s widely used internationally. For a brief discussion of the issues around absolute/relative poverty see

    Globally, family size varies inversely with wealth. By incentivising the poor to have larger families here we seem to be exacerbating an existing tendency to develop a vicious circle of poverty, although I do not expect the effect to be large.

    The biggest problem really is that, as you indicate, we have just had a government which has mismanaged the economy by failing to undertake contracyclical expenditure.


  3. I think the rise in average family sizes across all social classes predates the Labour government by many years, I was noticing it in my teens in the 1980s when Thatcho was still in power.

    I think there’s a bigger elephant in the room – namely that as well as “council house families” even the most right on middle class male who gets with a woman already with children (which happens often due to marriages / relationships now being short term) may well be biologically inclined to have one or two more of his own to avoid feeling cuckolded – its basic male instinct!

    Of course in a family where all these kids get looked after thats far better than the animal kingdom where unwanted babies “disappear”
    (and what probably happened with humans at one point until society and the justice system put a stop to this (even then I am aware of a particularly nasty incident in Mid Suffolk in recent times))

    at the same time the benefits they get (particularly working class and middle class people who are in work) doesn’t (other than extreme and rare cases the tabloids latch onto) automatically provide a massively larger house big enough to house 4 or 5 children in – for instance most houses on my estate are sized for 2 kids only!

    Families do of course spend a lot of money on motor cars that are big enough to put all the kids into, but that is perhaps more due to understandable safety issues which would occur with an overloaded vehicle.

    I find it wryly amusing that as a British Asian I now live alone, yet people down my street are now clearly cramming 3 generations of families into small houses, which in the 1970s was “what the Asians did”!

    perhaps the solution isn’t so much redistributing the wealth but redistributing the babies? Young couples who end up with a baby they cannot afford shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed to offer it up for adoption – or better still for grandparents/extended family to raise it if possible.

    This is also “what the Asians do” – even today and in this town (a lot of immigrant workers leave their children behind with grandparents in their home country so they can work longer hours – the grandparents are sent money for their upkeep).

    Of course this does mean rediscovering at least some “traditional family values” (particularly the concept of the extended family) but this might be inevitable


  4. @Lemondy maybe I’ve been reading too much Daily Mail 🙂 I hope it is largely the army of SAHMs, in which case they can knuckle down. I was awestruck by this hopefully soon to be SAHD who spends more per month on nursery care for his one-year old than my entire monthly household spending barring food!

    It is the extremes that come to attention, however unless we fix the education system poverty will run along the generations, so any increase will compound 😦

    @SG many thanks for the correction, and indeed that BBC interactive graphic shows the remarkable counter-inuitiveness of the median metric.

    Although global family size does vary inversely with wealth some of the reasons for particularly large sizes in poorer countries don’t apply at all in Britain. I grew up in a somewhat lower socioeconomic group than that of my colleagues and certainly my co-workers seem to have slightly larger families than were the norm for the kids I was at school with. Though at the bottom of the scale it probably tips up again, unless that’s sample bias from my DM reading 😉

    @Alex, I’ve observed the ‘our own natural child’ effect in more recent families, but those I observed as a young adult were late ’80s and reasonably stable, indeed many of those stood the test of time and the children have been to university now and the parents are still together.

    The effect you observe now in middle-class step-families is probably a social good, however, inasmuch as better-off parents are having more children overall, and to some extent spreading them over a longer period than natural parents could, so family resources available to the children should be greater, which may help them handle our expensive tertiary education system better.


  5. > so family resources available to the children
    > should be greater, which may help them handle
    > our expensive tertiary education system better.

    most of the teenagers/young adults I know (from mostly middle class families) aren’t going to Uni any more as they don’t think its worth it!

    however this creates an uncomfortable situation (for the youths at least) that they now end up competing for jobs with the immigrants and everyone else, and also being “stuck in the family home” for much longer – and unless we go back to having more local businesses and family businesses (although they are fairly common in this area anyway)

    another thing I’ve noticed is *downward* social mobility – a young chap from a “middle class” family who would normally end up working as a factory manager or head mechanic becoming a delivery driver on short term hours, a young lady working in a shop rather than becoming a writer or journalist on a local magazine…

    in some cases its by choice and the young folk certainly don’t begrudge the extra leisure time the more flexible hours might give them – until they realise that prices are geared towards those doing full time hours! and thats *before* they even start having kids..

    and as Lemondy pointed out, kids tend to arrive anyway. Even my own parents who were very clued up by their own admission really intended to have me in the late 1970s (which would have been financially more astute) rather than the early 1970s.

    to be fair many young familes I know here (especially in Mid Suffolk and South Norfolk where I spend a fair bit of time) are indeed getting support from the grandparents and extended communities – but the age of the grandparents is getting younger and they aren’t as financially secure as older folk (some are my age or younger and I’m only 38!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: