Child Benefit is a universal benefit, which means it is awarded on the basis of having a certain contingency (a child!) and not on the basis of a contributions record or an income test. It is for this latter reason that the equity and efficiency of child benefit has come into question.
Is it really equitable or a good use of money for a family earning £200,000 per year to receive child benefit of £20.30 per week for the first child and £13.40 each week for every subsequent child? Do these families really need the money, or would it be better spent on education, healthcare etc? This question became even more pertinent with the growing budget deficit facing the UK and the Coalition’s policy of cutting the deficit and hence cutting government expenditure.
Child benefit was one of the benefits targeted by the Coalition. It would be removed from higher rate tax payers. Those earning more than £44,000 would no longer be eligible to receive it. For some this seems like a good policy – the benefit is being targeted at those who need it most – it is becoming more vertically efficient. However, for others this presents a problem, not least because it looks at individual income and not family income. If there is a 2 parent household, with each parent earning, say, £40,000 then total household income is £80,000. Yet, this family is still eligible to receive child benefit, as neither of their incomes exceed £44,000. However, a 2 parent household, where one person works and earns £45,000 and the other only works part time and earns £5,000 would not receive child benefit, despite their total household income being only £50,000. This policy, unsurprisingly, faced criticisms of inequity and that middle income households would be the ones who saw their income squeezed and were made significantly worse off.
Amid these criticisms, David Cameron has admitted that there is an issue with the threshold and those facing the cliff edge of becoming a higher rate tax payer and losing the benefit. The Chancellor is unlikely to be in favour of any significant changes that will reduce the projected £2.5bn savings the policy will make. Although the policy still looks set to go ahead, following the Coalition’s defeat in the House of Lords concerning cuts to welfare and Cameron’s desire to retain the loyalty of Conservative supporters, we may still see some revisions to the initial proposal. The following articles consider this highly charged issue.
Child benefit cut will go ahead, says Osborne BBC News (13/1/12)
George Osborne: child benefit plans will go ahead The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (9/5/11)
Child benefit cut to hit 1.5 million families, says IFS BBC News (13/1/12)
Osborne sticks to child benefit cut The Press Association (13/1/12)
Middle-class parents could keep their child benefit after all Independent, Andrew Grice (13/1/12)
Welfare payment cap poses ‘real risks to children’s rights’ Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (11/1/12)
Universal child benefit has had its day Mail Online, Janice Atkinson-Small (13/1/12)
- What is the difference between a benefit such as income support and child benefit?
- Define the terms horizontal and vertical efficiency and horizontal and vertical equity.
- To what extent does child benefit (as a universal benefit) conform with your definitions above? Would the new means tested child benefit meet the objectives of horizontal and vertical efficiency and horizontal and vertical equity any better?
- Why are middle-income families and women likely to be the most affected by the proposed changes to child benefit?
- Why is there a growing pressure on the Coalition government to rethink the proposal?
- If child benefit is removed from higher rate tax payers, should other benefits be changed to compensate some families for their losses?
As the new tax year begins, many changes are taking place. In order to cut the large budget deficit, sacrifices have to be made by all. The tax and benefit changes could make households worse off by some £2bn this year – definitely not good news for those households already feeling the squeeze. However, the Coalition say that the poorest households will be made better off relative to the rich.
Personal allowance is increasing by £1,000, which is expected to benefit £800,000 people who will no longer pay any tax. At the same time, the 40% tax bracket is being reduced from £43,875 to £42,475, which will bring another 750,000 people into this higher tax bracket, bringing in much needed revenue for the government. Employee’s national insurance contributions will rise by 1% and according to Credit Action, this will leave households £200 worse off per year. Benefits do rise with inflation, but they are to be indexed against the CPI rather than the RPI. The RPI is usually higher and hence benefits will not increase by as much, again leaving some people worse off. Child benefit will be frozen for all and will then be removed for higher rate tax payers from 2013. According to the Treasury, it is the top 10% of households who will lose the most from these needed changes. However, as Justine Greening, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said:
‘Labour left behind a complete mess with no plan to deal with it, apart from to run up more debts for the next generation to pay off.’
In order to cut the deficit, which stands at an estimated £146bn, spending must fall and tax revenue for the government must rise. The government argues that if cuts are not made today, even higher cuts will be necessary in the future and this will harm the poorest even more. Whilst the Treasury have accepted that there was a ‘marginal loss’ across the population, it is the highest earning households that will suffer the most.
Wednesday of woe as the taxman bites: Changes could leave you £600 worse off Daily Mail, Becky Barrow (6/4/11)
Benefit cuts: Labour warns of ‘Black Wednesday’ BBC News (6/4/11)
Tax and benefit changes: row over financial impact BBC News (6/4/11)
Black Wednesday will hig millions in tax changes and cuts Metro, John Higginson (5/4/11)
Taxman to take extra £750 from families this year Scotsman, Tom Peterkin and Jeff Salway (6/4/11)
Tax and welfare changes will hit women and children hardest, says Ed Balls Guardian, Helene Mullholland, Polly Curtis and Larry Elliott (6/4/11)
Black Wednesday for millions of British families Telegraph (6/4/11)
Majority of households ‘better off’ The Press Association (6/4/11)
- Where does the term ‘Black Wednesday’ come from?
- What is the likely impact of the 1% rise in NICs? Think about the income and substitution effects. Can you illustrate the effect using indifference analysis?
- Why are Labour arguing that women and children will be hit the hardest and the coalition arguing that it is the highest income households who will lose the most? Can both parties be right?
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against bringing in tax and benefit changes today rather than in a few years?
- How might these changes affect the economic recovery?
- Is it equitable that child benefit should eventually be removed from those paying the higher rates of income tax?
- Why has the government indexed benefit payments to rise in line with the CPI rather than the RPI?
In his speech to the Conservative Party conference, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced that from 2013 child benefit would not be paid to any household where one or both parents had a high enough income to pay tax at the 40% rate. This means that if either parent earns over £43,875, they will receive no child benefit for any of their children. If, however, neither parent pays tax at 40%, then they will continue to receive it for all their children. Thus if both parents each earned, say, £43,870, giving a total household income of £87,740, they would continue to receive child benefit.
Not surprisingly, people have claimed that it is very unfair to penalise households where one person earns just over the threshold and the other does not work or earns very little and not penalise households where both parents earn just below the threshold. So what are the justifications for this change? What are the implications for income distribution? And what are the effects on incentives? Are there any people who would be put off working? The following articles look at these questions.
How benefit cuts could affect you Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Mark King (5/10/10)
Q&A: Child benefit measures will be messy Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (5/10/10)
Cameron Defends Cut in Child Benefits for Stay-at-Home Mothers Bloomberg Businessweek, Thomas Penny and Kitty Donaldson (5/10/10)
Three million families hit by child benefit axe Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (5/10/10)
George Osborne’s child benefit plans are characterised by unfairness Telegraph letters (5/10/10)
Child benefit: case study Telegraph, Harry Wallop (5/10/10)
Child benefit cuts ‘tough but necessary’ say ministers BBC News (4/10/10)
Child Benefit Changes – Should Parents Take a Pay Cut? Suite101, John Oyston (5/10/10)
No such thing as an easy reform BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (5/10/10)
Child benefit saga: Lessons to be learned BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (6/10/10)
Higher rate taxpayers to lose child benefits from 2013: extracts from speech BBC News, Nick Robinson (5/10/10)
Our tough but fair approach to welfare Conservative Party Conference Speech, George Osborne (4/10/10)
Data and information
Child Benefit: portal HMRC
Child Benefit rates HMRC
Income Tax, rates and allowances HMRC
- Assess the fairness arguments for not paying child benefit to any household where at least one person pays tax at the 40% rate.
- For a family with three children, how much extra would a parent earning £1 below the threshold have to earn to restore their disposable income to the level they started with?
- What incentive effects would result from the proposals? How might ‘rational’ parents respond if one parent now stays at home and the other works full time and earns over £43,870, but where both parents have equal earning potential?
- What income and substitution effects are there of the proposed changes?
- Discuss other ways in which child benefit could be reformed to achieve greater fairness and save the same amount of money.
- What are the arguments for and against tapering the reduction in child benefit as parents earn more?