Using child benefit to tackle poverty

Earlier this year the Scottish Government published Every Child, Every Chance: The Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2018 – 2022. Among a host of commitments was one to introduce a new income supplement for low-income families; a welcome step that recognised the need to use the new social security powers that Scotland has to reduce poverty.

Why is this so needed? For many families, the cost of living is rising faster than their incomes – due to both stagnating wages and the benefits freeze. 1 million people in Scotland continue to live in the grip of poverty, including 1 in 4 children. This simply cannot be right.

So the development of the new income supplement – as a means of loosening the grip of poverty – is vital. Deciding upon how it will be delivered is the next step, and there is a range of options open to the Scottish Government. Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland and the Poverty Alliance, along with a host of organisations from across civil society, have led the call to use new powers to tackle child poverty, campaigning specifically for a top up of child benefit by £5 per week. The Give Me Five campaign believes that there are powerful reasons for considering child benefit as a serious option for delivery of the new income supplement. .

We know that parents can often face barriers to accessing means-tested benefits, meaning that those who need the support most can too often be unable to access it. Delivering the new income supplement through topping up child benefit – which is received by most families – would bypass these difficulties and ensure that everyone who needs the additional support actually obtains it. As well as being the simplest and most efficient way of boosting family incomes, it may also be the best option financially, with means-tested benefits tending to be significantly more expensive to administer.

Sanctions, benefits delays and administrative errors are becoming all too common features of means-tested benefits, negatively impacting on families’ incomes. Child benefit is not part of Universal Credit, nor is it affected by sanctions. It is a stable and reliable source of income for families, which allows them to better plan and budget. Given that most families receive it, topping up child benefit would also help to keep children out of poverty and help all families cover the additional costs of having a child.

With 68% of children living in poverty in Scotland living in households where at least one person is in work, it is important that whatever form the new income supplement takes it supports working households. Again, topping up child benefit fits this requirement, with child benefit supporting families in and out of work – creating no problems when parents take up work or increase their hours.

Can £5 a week make a real difference? We think so, and the parents we speak to think so too. It could cover, for example: seven breakfasts of cereal, milk, fruit juice and a banana or over two months, a good quality winter coat, or taking part in a school trip or out of school activity each week; all things which can have a critical impact on children’s life chances. Of course, a supplement of more than £5 would go even further in supporting families and reducing overall levels of poverty.

So the Scottish Government’s commitment to delivering a new income supplement is welcome. It represents a maturation of our approach to tackling poverty in Scotland, and provides recognition that we do have at our disposal the tools to free people from the grip of poverty.  In choosing how to deliver the new income supplement,  Ministers must now take account of the need for urgency – families are in no position to wait for this vital income boost  – as well as the need to maximize take up and support families in and out of work.  Only by doing so can they ensure that every child truly does have every chance.

John Dickie, CPAG in Scotland & Peter Kelly, Poverty Alliance

(This is an edited version of a piece that will form one of Children in Scotland’s 25 Calls, part of the charity’s 25th anniversary campaign launching on 10 October. #25Calls’)

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