Will the new benefits system cause families to separate?

We’ve heard a lot about families in the aftermath of the riots – issues about parenting, family breakdown, single parents and children who don’t know right from wrong. Breakdown of traditional families, moral decay and social disorder all go together for the right and some on the left too (such as Frank Field).

Life is undoubtedly a lot tougher for children who do not grow up in a stable and loving family. A strong family life is the way that many people manage to deal with and overcome social disadvantage and poverty.

Over 13 years, Labour supported families through maternity and paternity leave, expanded childcare, Sure Start children’s centres and parenting classes – along with some harder measures to make parents more responsible for their children’s actions.

The Tories prefer promoting marriage and the maintenance of ‘traditional’ nuclear families. They had their plan of tax incentives for marriage, until the coalition agreement forced them to drop it.

Government’s can also do things that undermine family life. This government’s benefit policies are providing a compelling ‘incentive’ for families to split up.

The impact of the Universal Credit and household benefit cap may make it very hard for families to stick together. The limit on the total level of benefits a family can claim in a year is £26,000 per year, regardless of the size of the family. It applies to two parents, two children, as much as a single parent and single child or a multi-generational family.

This cap, once combined with housing costs, will force many families into considerable hardship, especially larger families. Many people will move to other areas. Many others will look for ways to get by the area where they live. 

If larger families live separately they are far more able to do this.

A family of two parents and two children can claim a maximum of £26,000 in benefit. Should they separate into two household, both parents perhaps finding smaller, cheaper places in the area, the same people are eligible for up to £52,000 of benefits.

It’s difficult to know how people react to poverty and hardship. People are ingenious and look for the gaps in any system to get along. That’s human nature, not cheating – the rich do the same in employing expensive accountants to help them minimise what they pay through the tax system. And, in my view the bonds of family or the pressures of broken relationships, are far more important than any ‘incentives’ right-wing government’s might offer for marriage and keeping families together.

But, I wonder if that great champion of the family, Iain Duncan Smith, has considered how his system provides a considerable pressure and incentive for poor families in expensive areas to split up.

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