Under the last Tory Government this manifested in the accusation that teenage girls were becoming pregnant simply to gain access to a council flat. With social housing in chronically short supply this argument barely holds water anymore. Very young single parents are likely to be placed in mother and baby units or hostels – usually sharing a tiny room with their child in an environment closer to an open prison than a home. Those who are older with children tend to be offered private sector accommodation whilst awaiting a council property which may take years to materialise, if it ever does.
So now the Tories have turned their attention to the pittance paid out in benefits to those with kids, even stooping as low as exploiting the recent tragic deaths in the Philpott case.
There are now likely to be repeated calls for benefits to be limited to two children as hysterical right wing newspapers, along with the Prime Minister, use an exceptional case to smear all low income families.
The truth is that benefit rates for single parents are pitiful and barely meet even the most basic costs of looking after a child. A single parent unable to find work is paid just £71 a week for themselves plus slightly over that for their first child – taking their total income to around £150 a week. A second child is worth even less however at £696.80 annually in Child Benefit and £2,690 in tax credits, which works out at £3,386 a year or around £65 a week. From a purely financial perspective, looking after other people’s children is a far better deal.
The cheapest jar of baby food in Tesco is 65p. 100g of oven chips, two fish fingers and a third of a tin of value beans is edging close to a quid. A pint of milk a day costs up to £3.50 a week. Even a bag of crisps is over 50p these days, whilst a banana can set you back 25p. Buying the cheapest possible food items and only feeding your kids just about enough to survive it would still be near impossible to keep the cost of food down to less than £25 a week per child.
Of course food bills can be kept low by shopping around at market stalls, soaking dried beans, or trying to force-feed kids lentils everyday. But at this level of micro-economising then the money you save doing one thing often means a cost somewhere else. Is it worth a bus fare to the market, or even the cost of gas to cook from fresh? These are the kind of questions that low income parents spend half their lives obsessing about.
Supermarket value nappies are an example of this. Tesco do 20 value nappies for just under £2 and baby wipes for around 50p. But be prepared to literally deal with a lot of shit, along with vicious nappy rash if these are a permanent choice. And be prepared to buy twice as many. In truth nappies and wipes are likely to cost at a minimum £8 a week – calculated roughly at the cost of four Tesco own brand nappies day and two packs of wipes a week.
The costs don’t end there. Whilst there is a small grant available for those on low incomes when they have their first child, there is none for the second. A cheap buggy from Argos costs around £30-40 quid, but it will probably break after a year. Even shopping in Primark and charity shops it is difficult to imagine any change from £100 a year at the absolute minimum for clothing costs. Then add a couple of quid a week for extra laundry costs ( or much more if you don’t have a washing machine), another couple at the very least for increased heating and hot water costs and then another £100 a year for general kid tat such as bottles, sippy cups, blankets and bibs. And then of course you will need a cot, and then a bed as they get bigger, along with at least some basic furniture, which won’t last if you buy it cheap.
So for just the very basic food, nappies, clothes and equipment that’s around two grand gone. And all you’ve got so far is a pissed off kid, who’s slightly malnourished, probably cold most of the time, needs their bum changing and has no toys. You’re going to need a lot of Calpol (over £3 quid a bottle in Boots).
One bus trip a week, to see friends or family, is likely to cost approaching £150 a year. Even a very sparse Christmas and birthday would take up another £100 annually. Just one chocolate bar a week adds £30 to the yearly food bill. Then of course there is the additional amount spent on cleaning products, shampoo, kid’s toothpaste and the endless hidden expenses, from a pack of plasters to a mobile phone to replace the one the little darling just tried to flush down the loo.
And all these costs are for a very young child, who hasn’t even heard of Playstations, funfairs or Cheese Strings yet. Yet all that’s left after this social services baiting lifestyle, is just a few hundred pounds a year in ‘profit’ – not even enough to pay the bedroom tax. And it is that few hundred pounds remaining which buys even the most basic quality of life for a young child. Some colouring books, a birthday cake, an Easter egg, the odd day out, or some decent nutritional food.
It is ludicrous to suggest that anyone would have a baby for the benefits. And that’s why no-one does. Just 1% of Child Benefit recipients have five or more children, and many of those will be working families. Around half of single parents were married when they had their kids. People’s lives change over time and no-one knows what the future might bring. Any attempt to punish families economically for having too many children will drive thousands into unbearable poverty for reasons that in most cases were entirely beyond their control.
Sadly there will always be families like the Philpotts. But no-one can seriously pretend that they are in any way typical of those raising children on benefits. And it is this that cuts to the heart of the debate on the future of social security as extreme examples are repeatedly used as political cover for legislation which affects millions. How many thousands of children’s lives is this Government prepared to destroy in a flawed attempt at collective punishment due to a handful of families like the Philpotts?
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