Tuesday 18 June 2019

Forget means testing - just stop allowance after second child

Revised sentiments: Minister Doherty
Revised sentiments: Minister Doherty
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Steady there, Regina - stand back and take your fingers away from the socket.

The news that Regina Doherty was potentially, kinda half thinkin', about examining a report which recommended a means test for children's allowance couldn't have been more unpopular if she had suggested tattooing their RSI number on to the arm of every newborn in the country.

She wisely and quickly backed off when the reaction ranged from outraged to hysterical.

In fairness to the Social Protection Minister, she's hardly the first person, nor even the first politician, to talk about cutting a benefit which is vital to some and merely a handy few bob to others.

As things stand - and they're certainly not going to change any time soon - the payment is made to the parents or guardians of all kids under the age of 16, and up to the age of 18 for young people who still live at home but are in full-time education or training.

The children's allowance is an article of faith for many Irish people; an entitlement which almost seems part of the fabric of Irish life at this stage.

As my mother used to say, it was her 'wages'.

Whether it's people demanding the children's allowance because they say families simply can't get by without the €140 a month per child, or those from the Michael O'Leary school of diplomacy who dismiss the whole thing as a 'subsidy for sex' scam for wastrel parents who spend the cash on booze and fast food, everyone has an opinion.

The most common defence to emerge from those who jealously guard their monthly allowance is that they deserve it and it's just mean and nasty to suggest otherwise.

Yet while the arguments were raging thick and fast about the Minister's quickly revised sentiments, nobody was able to really explain or justify why the children's allowance benefit should remain universal, regardless of the income of the household - other than the fact that they want it, they like it, they're used to it and they're not going to give it up without a fight.

Doherty was quick to clarify her position, saying that: "We should treat all the children in the country equally and that's why I believe in the universal payment of child benefit."

It almost seems redundant to point this out, but we don't treat all the children of the country equally. Because there is no such thing as equality - and there never can be.

'Equality' is simply a word which sounds nice to people who prefer platitudes to thinking.

There is equality in birth, and there is equality in death - the bit in between is where life takes over and life has a tendency to be very messy and extremely unequal.

Can Doherty honestly say that a child who is born into wealthy, happy, loving family which places a heavy emphasis on, say, education and getting a good career is equal to the child born into chaos, misery and, say, drug addiction?

Obviously, she wouldn't. No sensible person would. That's why the whole 'equality' concept is flawed from the very start.

But I'm sure most people would agree that the kid who is born into miserable home circumstances, with precious few prospects for the future, could probably do with that monthly stipend a lot more than the kid who comes from a secure, settled home.

Of course, that then brings up the old chestnut of just what the parents use the benefit for.

When O'Leary walked into a world of pain for using the admittedly cringeworthy phrase 'subsidy for sex' he wasn't simply plucking his latest mad idea from the ether - we all know certain boozers which rock on children's allowance night and no amount of hand wringing, pearl-clutching, cliché spouting do-gooders will change that fact.

Talk to most barmen and they will tell you they know when it's children allowance day, because they do such a roaring trade.

That's not to insult the people who choose to spend that money whatever they want, but it's a bit rich to call it a child benefit when so many children are getting no benefit from it at all.

Does anyone want to check on just what the parents have spent the allowance on? In much the same way that this week we saw a survey which said 60pc or us think people should pay more tax, but 70pc think that shouldn't actually apply to them, we seem to have a national confusion, rather than a national conversation, about the whole point of this particular benefit.

Amidst all the outraged parents who blocked the airwaves for much of the week, one thing became abundantly apparent - they all feel they deserve the money, and they all resent any suggestion that they should only spend it on their kids.

Sure, some of them were quick to point out that it goes into their kid's college fund, but others were equally quick to say that they put it towards a holiday - but it is not the Government's job to pay for your holiday.

In fact, it's not the job of the Government to pay for your kids - full stop.

Perhaps the best compromise is also the easiest one - universal child benefit for the first two children, and nothing after that.

No means testing, no tedious class war, just a simple rule that everyone knows - you get cash for the first two sprogs, then you're on your own.

And for those who have been loudly complaining that they couldn't afford to have kids if it wasn't for the allowance?

Well, then don't have kids.

It's not up to the State to fund your family.

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