Monday, December 06, 2010

Is John Rentoul right about child poverty?

John Rentoul:

"[Flight] said that policy designed to alleviate child poverty has a perverse effect in encouraging people on benefits to have more children than they otherwise would. This has been demonstrated by several academic surveys, not least a recent one by the unimpeachable Institute for Fiscal Studies. In December 2008 it published a paper entitled "Does welfare reform affect fertility?" It was barely reported in the press, for reasons in which social psychologists might be interested, because it found that, since Labour increased child-related benefits in 1999, "there was an increase in births (by around 15 per cent) among the group affected by the reforms"."

John Rentoul is the author of a series called "Questions to which the answer is no". Here's one for his list - "Are John Rentoul and Howard Flight right about child poverty?"

The Institute of Fiscal Studies research doesn't examine the question of whether "people on benefits", by which I assume he means people who are not working, were more likely to have children as a result of Labour's policies. Instead, it found that women who left full time education at the minimum leaving age, and who had a partner who also left left full time education at the minimum leaving age, were more likely to have children as a result of Labour's reforms, particularly the financial help provided by tax credits.

The IFS report also noted, however, extensive research which showed how Labour's reforms helped more lone parents into work- and found that lone parents were not more likely to have children as a result of the reforms. And many of the women with partners who were more likely to have children were in paid employment - the IFS research didn't look at "people on benefits" as a separate group, and aimed to examine the effects of Working Families Tax Credit. I know that the benefits system can be complicated to understand, but it shouldn't be that hard to work out that some of the people receiving Working Families Tax Credit might be families who are working.

To summarise the research accurately - Labour helped families, particularly those on low incomes, with extra cash payments. These payments increased the number of lone parents in work, without incentivising lone parents to have more children. These payments and extra help did incentivise some couples to decide to have children, and in some cases this involved the mother giving up work and staying at home and looking after the children while the father went out to work.

Despite the recession, child poverty actually fell between 2008 and 2010. Rentoul may believe that the new government should abandon one of the most effective anti-poverty programmes in the world. But financial support to reduce poverty is part of the solution, not part of the problem.


At 11:22 pm , Anonymous The anonymous editor of the "Periplus of St Peter 'the Navigator'" said...

Something also worth thinking about is whether, even if it were the case that the stats indicated that there was a surge in childbirth rates among the people contemptuously dismissed as "on benefits", that it could represent merely a shift in when people give birth (i.e,. earlier in their lives) rather than how many children they eventually give birth to. Since babies of younger mothers are slightly less likely to suffer various expensive health problems, bringing down the age at which people have children might even be regarded as a social good by those whose only calculus for the issue is the impact on short term public finances. (I am entirely agnostic as to whether it is social good. I can see arguments both ways.)

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