Family values and their defence has become a buzz word in our society. However, Joan Brown argues that behind the often vaunted theories and pledges, are realities of hardship and indignity suffered by low-income families that their would-be defenders are ignorant of.
THE United Kingdom has officially pursued policies in favour of the family for the past 40 years. The goal set down in the 1940s — and just as valid today — was that every child should have maximum opportunity to be born healthy, to be maintained in good health, to be brought up free of poverty, to live in decent housing, to be educated up `to their full abilities and to have the opportunity of productive employment.
In addition to the health, housing, education and employment polices that these objectives required, there have been social security provisions which came under the broad title of family income support.
But does our present family income support package secure the interests of our children? And do the benefits and the way in which they are "delivered" demonstrate that society places a high value on the family in its child rearing role and on the personal dignity of parents and children? These were principles to which the Catholic bishops' conference urged attention in its statement on the Reform of Social Security in September 1985.
For the majority of the roughly seven million families with children in this country, the only contact they have with the family income support arrangements is through child benefit. This is paid to the mothers or fathers of just over 12 million children, on simple proof of having the care of a child under 16 years or, if in full time education, under 18 years.
When this benefit was first established — as family allowance in 1945 — it was held that it was in the national interest for the state to help parents to discharge their child rearing responsibilities, and it would do this by sharing with the parents the cost of the child's care.
However, when child benefit was introduced in 1977 (as a replacement for family allowance) it acquired an extra role. Child tax allowances were withdrawn and child benefit was to act as a tax credit so as to make for fairness in the tax system between families with and without children.
Because it is received as a right by every family with children in the country, can be claimed by post on the birth of the child, and be received routinely for the next 16-18 years, the administration of child benefit does operate in a way which respects the personal dignity of the parents. The benefit also demonstrates that the child rearing role is valued, though whether at the rate paid (£7.25 per week) it shows that a high value is being placed on it is perhaps more questionable.
The experience of low income families with the family income support provisions is quite different. Around three million children — almost one quarter of all our children — live in families whose income is so low that they must depend on means-tested social security benefits. This is the figure for children in families who claim housing benefit. For some of these families, housing benefit is the only benefit claimed, but around 2.25 million of these children live in families who depend on supplementary benefit — mainly children of the unemployed and lone parents.
Getting on for half a million live in low wage families who claim the family income supplement (FIS). Because the basic benefits — supplementary benefit and FIS — are so low, the family may also be entitled to claim other benefits such as free milk for under fives, free school meals, grants for school uniform, education maintainence allowances and minor awards for children over 16 in school for further education. All of this suggests a real concern for low income families with children, but the way the family income support package operates must also be considered. Every social security benefit has to have an eligibility test. For national insurance benefits, for example, you must show that you have paid the correct number of contributions at the right time, and give proof that your are over retirement age, or that you are sick and cannot work, or that you have lost your job and are looking for another.
You may sometimes have to tangle with bureaucracy, but the information you have to give is limited in scope and, if you meet the rules, you have a right to benefit.
A means-test is qualitatively different. What you have to prove is that you are poor. This involves giving much more extensive information, and checks may be made with your landlord or (if you claim as a low earner) with your employer. The facts have to be re-checked at intervals, and if an offical suspects you of not telling the truth, extra checks will be made. This may include talking to your neighbours.
Claimants who, in the past, have always managed to support themselves and their families, find themselves in a powerless position, dependant on often overworked staff in benefit offices.
Attempts have been made to ease the problems raised by means testing procedures. Low paid workers can claim family income supplement by post and it will be granted for a year. The new family credit (which replaces FIS in 1988) will also have postal claims, but will be awarded only for six months at a time so that re-checking will be more frequent.
Someone on supplementary benefit is automatically entitled to housing benefit, though it is still necessary to claim it from the local authority housing department. But FIS recipients must undergo a separate means test for housing benefit.
If we turn to the educationrelated benefits, children from supplementary benefit families and those on FIS can get free school meals as an automatic right, though this must be claimed. But separate means tests are necessary to get help with school uniform costs, or an allowance to help you keep your 16 year old in education. These are conducted by the local authority education department. They may accept proof of being on one of the basic benefits, but they may invent their own rules.
There can be other disadvantages. Some schools are very good about protecting the privacy of their free school meal children, but others are not. In some deprived areas, so many of the children are on free meals that it is the paying children who are in the minority, but in more affluent areas, a child may feel humiliated by being marked out as poor and on free meals. Some children take it so badly that their parents scrape the bottom of the financial barrel to pay for them.
School uniform is another hazard. Not all local authorities will help with this costly item. Some who do, give adequate grants. Others give far less than is needed. Some only give help in the shape of vouchers for a selected shop. The clothes have to be bought at that shop and no other, whether the service is good or bad, and with the shopkeeper fully aware that he is dealing with a family on benefits.
So for the families of around a quarter of our children, it is something of a lottery whether their personal dignity will be respected and there must be doubts about whether their important task of child rearing is really valued. The social security reforms now being put into action offer mixed prospects — some changes will be for the better, others more doubtful. But the situation described here will not alter very much for the families involved.
What can be done? Means testing will always be a necessary part of social security — though it need not be as widespread as it now is.
If better off families took the trouble to find out how their local authority and their schools dealt with low income children and, where necessary, demanded better treatment for them, worthwhile advances could be made. All of us need make clear to government, through every possible avenue, our deep concern about the numbers of children who are spending part, and perhaps all, of their young lives in adverse circumstances and about their parents who are struggling to carry out their responsibilities in face of such difficulties.
Joan C Brown
The writer is a free lance researcher and writer on social policy and the author of a number of books — published by the Policy Studies Institute — on family income support. She also assisted in the preparation of the 1985 bishops' conference statement on the subject.