Child Benefit For All – Including Dupes and The Very Rich

Irish Times – Polls – News Poll

Do you believe child benefit payments should be abolished for higher earners?

A word on universal provision of Child Benefit, seeing as the Tories decided they’d get rid of it yesterday, and the usual kites are being flown with a view to replicating the measure here.

Lots of apparently well-meaning people say “well, there are some people who get it and they really don’t need it”, and in doing so justify the decision to pay Child Benefit only to those parents whose incomes do not exceed a certain threshold.

Some of these people are dupes, and others are just saying it for their own advantage. But I am writing this for the dupes. These are the ones who can’t see that child benefit is paid for out of the total amount of money raised by the government, and not out of some Child Benefit piggy bank that wings its way down from heaven.

So when you talk about whether or not you should cut Child Benefit, you should consider it in terms of overall government priorities. A decision to restrict child benefit should, for starters, be weighed against what is going to be spent in other areas.

For instance, if your government decided to spend €50 billion on what is euphemistically termed ‘bailing out banks’ but can also be called ‘Very Rich People Benefits’, you may wish to pause for a moment and consider whether this makes sense. Stop and ask yourself: should we cut Child Benefit because it is more important to pay Very Rich People Benefit?

Then there are the others who say these things because it is to their advantage, the managerial strategists. Normally these people have already made up their minds to pay out Very Rich People Benefit in spades. And this leaves them in a good position to move the conversation away from the question of just what the dickens Child Benefit is for anyway. So now is a good time to issue a reminder.

The Department of Social Protection, not especially renowned for its protection of Society, says this about Child Benefit: ‘Child Benefit is a monthly payment for each qualified child normally living with you and being supported by you.’ The ‘qualified’ modifier has nothing to do with Junior Cert results or an ability to run the 800m in four minutes. It has to do, mostly, with whether or not said child, or that child’s parents, were born in the right place. I mention this in passing because I should be really addressing the matter of universality now, but Child Benefit in Ireland is not a universal benefit.

But let’s say it was. Suppose Child Benefit in Ireland really were a universal payment. What would be good about this? Let me give one reason. It is a basic moral statement by society that every child is equal. That is, it doesn’t matter who your parents are, or what they do: society considers that you need to be looked after (you are, after all, a child), and that takes money, and so we’re providing this money to your parents and we trust them to use it properly on your behalf.

The problem I suppose, with moral statements, is that lots of people think that morality, particularly in Ireland, is mostly to do with who you’re sleeping with and whether or not you are allowed to brush your teeth before communion, and has little to do with how people treat one another in the round. It might seem strange to some, then, that I should be talking about them in arguing for universal payment of Child Benefit. So let me give an example of what I am talking about.

Last night there was a programme on RTE, where Joe Duffy was presenting the case for recognising James Connolly as Ireland’s Greatest. Greatest what, I am not clear. And despite my own reservations, by Joe Duffy’s standards I have to say it was very good indeed. There was one part, however, that jarred. He went to meet his friend, Harry Crosbie, who was perched somewhere high, overlooking one of his monstrosities. And Crosbie said a couple of things against James Connolly’s view of the world.

At the outset, he claimed that Connolly was wrong because capitalism reflected human nature. In short, human nature is red in tooth and claw, everyone is out to advance their own self-interest, and it is natural that the strong dominate. The wealth must be created before it is redistributed. Those at the bottom -the weak- should then rely on the protection of the strong, and wait for the wealth to trickle down. As a condensed version of what the most wealthy and powerful people think, it was not bad. And then Joe Duffy says to him, but what about innate human decency? And Harry Crosbie said, well yes, I agree with there being innate human decency.

If Crosbie had a view on how a belief in innate human decency and belief in a natural drive to dominate others could be reconciled, it didn’t come across in the programme. As it happens, I categorically reject the proposition that people are innately decent. And I also reject the proposition that people are innately wicked. Babies have no sense of decency at all. And yet they do not harbour ambitions to invade Poland either. Decency in people, or lack of it, develops through custom, habit, practice, teaching, and example. To say all people are innately decent is like saying all people are innate virtuoso trumpeters. It makes far more sense to say that people have the capacity to be decent, and this capacity can be developed, neglected, or extinguished, depending on what happens.

Hence Universal Child Benefit as moral statement. For the State to treat all children equally in this regard is to say something important about childhood -and also the work of parenting. It recognises that the welfare of children is not just the responsibility of the parents, but of everyone. It provides a foundation for how people should act toward one another. Obviously, it should not be the sole foundation: there are other things, to Ireland’s disgrace, which are also lacking, like a National Health Service.

By saying Universal Child Benefit is a moral statement, I’m not saying that it is a grand collective proclamation. I say it in the sense that all economic arrangements are moral statements, in that they say something about how people ought to relate to each other. These statements are, of course, interpreted by different people in different ways, depending on where they stand. And this being the case, I need to look at what it would say to move away from universality toward a situation where children have to meet additional criteria -beyond those of nationality- for their parents to receive this benefit.

So what would it say? It would say, first of all, that other people’s children should not be our responsibility. We should not have to care about them.

This may not be explicit, because the way the change would be proposed -that the rich don’t need the money, whereas the poor do- implies a collective concern with looking out for the most vulnerable.

But behind the implied concern lies a more blunt position: there are some people (the haves) who are able to provide their children with what they need, and there others who can’t (the have-nots). So if only everybody could be like the rich, and were able to look after their children, we wouldn’t have to be concerned with other people’s children. This, as it happens, is Harry Crosbie’s position. Nature is red in tooth and claw, the strong are at the top because they are innately strong, and the weak are at the bottom because they are innately weak. But despite this, on account of a streak of innate human decency, the strong will not devour the weak entirely, and will step in, albeit reluctantly, to make sure that those weak people who can’t look after their children are supported in their attempts to do so.

That’s what the moral statement would say in a general sense. We would also need to look at how people in different situations would interpret them. First, to receive Child Benefit, a parent on a low income will have to continually demonstrate to the state bureaucracy that he or she is incapable of looking after his or her child to the full, whereas previously this money was received because he or she was simply the parent, and this entailed certain responsibilities. For the parent, it’s both a humiliation and the application of a stigma, with repercussions for the child. Second, a parent slightly above the income threshold -but by no means comfortable, and struggling to pay bills- will resent the payment of Child Benefit to people who -applying the Harry Crosbie criteria- receive it because they are weak. Third, a person who doesn’t have any children will conclude that there’s no reason whatsoever why he should be paying for the shortcomings of other people in having children when they are clearly incapable of looking after them.

Cloaked in egalitarian language, the calls for the removal of what passes for universality in the provision of Child Benefit are nothing more than a lit stick of dynamite, directed at whatever vestiges of social solidarity still exist. If it sticks in your craw that the rich should benefit at the expense of the poor, you would do much better to turn your view back to the matter of the Very Rich People Benefit. For the majority of the population in Ireland, calling for an end to what universality there is is like demanding that the man with the knife shouldn’t leave a mess on your bathroom floor, while at that very moment he’s making off with your kidney.

17 Responses to “Child Benefit For All – Including Dupes and The Very Rich”

  1. 1 Annie October 6, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Wonderful analysis of the issue as it stands, well though out and argued. It has given me another perspective on the values we are slowly chipping away at in Ireland.
    I am also one of the people who uses child benefit to keep a roof over our heads from month to month, a cut in it accross the board will send us from floundering to drowning as my boat that didint rise in the boom continues to take on water. Its hard to stomach when professional friends tell me they dont need or want the payment.So when the issue of bailing out banks versus valuing all the children of the nation equallly is raised I see children of the rich attending private fee paying schools that are built and staffed from the national purse and I wonder where the line is drawn for the wealthy.

    The current governments commitment to equality of ‘pain’ for all has not panned out as fairness for all. Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same thing, it means people get what they need, and this value seems absent in politics. I hope that when I am qualified, when I earn enough, I will not need this payment, I dont not want it. I refuse to secumb to a sence of entitlement that has pervaded society. I have never worked the system or taken more than needed, we have strong self preservation drives and these are not merely ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

    I would like better funding of school support services, universal healthcare, equality of outcomes but feel that will never happen here. Englands efforts to chip away at the welfare state will influence heavily here. We have never been very good at looking beyond the UK or the US as models of society.

    • 2 Hugh Green October 7, 2010 at 7:03 am

      Thanks for the comment Annie. Maybe this is unfair on your professional friends, but if receiving the child benefit payment is so great a burden on their conscience to the point that they have to tell other people they don’t need it, they could always send a cheque off to Revenue.

      Cherishing all children of the nation equally is a claim, whereas inequality in income, wealth and social power is a fact. You cannot separate the decision, on the one hand, to expropriate €50 billion from the general population to maintain very rich people in the style to which they have been accustomed, and on the other, the concentration of power in the hands of a relative few, maintained via private fee-paying schools, golden circles of association, and so on. The powerful have a lot of money and time on their hands to put forward their own spin on what cherishing all children of the nation equally is supposed to mean. So I think we need to be finding ways of highlighting the gap between the full meaning of equality contained in that phrase, and what exists in fact.

      What is wrong with having a sense of entitlement? I feel I am entitled, as is my family, as is everyone else, at the very least, to decent working conditions, health care, education, shelter, public amenities, and so on. I don’t think these things should simply be given to me and that I should contribute nothing in return. To your point about not wanting the child benefit payment: if we are talking about a state handout intended to shore up for some implied personal shortcoming, I can see why someone would not want it. But if we’re talking about a form of guaranteed income to make sure that every child’s basic needs are addressed, I find it hard to see why not.

      It’s only if you think about such payments as quid pro quid -that the ideal situation would be for the monetary value of what you put in in the form of taxes to be equal to the monetary value of what you get out in the form of payments- that you would worry about whether you’re working the system.

      But surely the point is that there are lots of ways in which people’s labour contributes to society, but in ways that are above and beyond the sphere of market exchange, and that if this the case, then a universal stipend paid out to everyone need not be considered a handout at all.

      As for your feeling that these things will never happen here. If people feel that way and do nothing about it, they really will never happen here – guaranteed. I don’t think we should be hung up about what ‘we’ are good at – that to me is just another way of saying that the same elite should be allowed to continue running the place.

  2. 3 FERGUS O'ROURKE October 8, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Please explain, or refer me to a useful source that can explain, how rescuing the banks is a “Very Rich People Benefit”. Naming a few of the very rich people benefitting would help.

    • 4 Hugh Green October 8, 2010 at 11:43 am

      Fo the background detail, I would refer you to David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism.

      I don’t know why naming a few of the rich people in this case would be any more instructive for you than naming a few of the poor people who stand to lose out from budget cuts.

  3. 5 FERGUS O'ROURKE October 10, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Come now, Hugh. That is not an answer. I am not going to read a book to get one. It almost certainly isn’t going to give it to me, anyway.

    How does rescuing the banks benefit only the very rich people ?

    How would letting the banks fail damage only the very rich people ?

    I asked for names so that you could illustrate, and thus substantiate, the answer.

    It cannot be that you are not able to do so, can it ?

    • 6 CMK October 10, 2010 at 7:27 pm

      Well, Fergus as an ‘Irish Lawyer’ you’d know that rich people can be thin-skinned, litigious and anxious about their reputation. Being listed explicitly as a beneficiary of NAMA by Hugh could, conceivably, trigger some unpleasant consequences for this blog. I’m not sure how deep Hugh’s pockets are, but I suspect they’re not particularly deep. If you think that’s being over-cautious; that’s a legitimate point. But part of the ugliness of the ‘rule-of-law’ is the use of lawful thuggery, courtesy of the legal ‘profession’, by those who can afford to keep lawyers on a retainer. I think it’s sensible not to name names.

      One name that comes to mind is Seanie and his recent court appearance neatly encapsulated the contempt that he and his ilk, as well as the upper echelons of the legal profession, have for most of their fellow citizens. As has been pointed out elsewhere someone who could afford an SC and several junior barristers, as well, trys to argue that he gets by on 188 euro a week!

      The banks should not be ‘let fail’, as you put it. They should have been nationalised immediately trouble arose, the bondholders should have been told to go f**k themselves and a wealth tax of 20% over five years should have been introduced in 2008 to pay for the cost of the mess. My own take but there are plenty of other sensible options that would not impact upon the lives of ordinary workers and communities who’ll be paying for this fiasco for decades.

      • 7 FERGUS O'ROURKE October 11, 2010 at 6:18 am


        Take the list of very rich people in Ireland. Without naming them, if you are too scared, tell us why people like Mick O’Leary and Mick Smurfit personally benefit from rescue of the banks.

        Sean FitzPatrick is not very rich, rich or even well-off: he owes more than he owns. That’s why he’s bankrupt. He’s not paying the lawyers: their fees are paid out of his assets, leaving less for his creditors, which include all of us. (Brian Lenihan, because he thinks all of us prefer it, insisted on this expensive bankruptcy instead of a cheaper voluntary scheme, which would have required les legal fees).

  4. 8 CMK October 12, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    O’Leary and Smurfit benefit from the bailout because the state has stepped in to rescue a part of the private sector – the banking system – which is critical to their continued accumulation of wealth. The state has then pushed the cost of this bailout onto, not O’Leary or Smurfit or their business interests, but onto those on social welfare recipients, public sector service provision and the low and medium income groups (i.e. the vast majority of Irish citizens). While O’Leary, as a tax resident in Ireland, will possibly contribute something towards the cost of the bailout, Smurfit won’t. And the thousands of other ‘high nett worth’ individuals who reside here, will have taken all the legal tax avoidance and planning advice available to them, to ensure that their declarable income is minimised, with all relevant tax breaks being used, and that their assets are suitably taken care of through trusts, off-shore etc.

    Sean Fitzpatrick falls precisely into this latter category. He personally might not be rich in terms of declared assets and income versus liabilities, but it appears he took good advise though and transferred significant sources of income to his family. That advice was undoubtedly conceived and executed by well paid members of the legal profession. Who, without a moment’s hesitation, would seek to injunct striking workers and financially cripple trade unions – as has happened umpteen times since the 1990 Industrial Relation legislation. The Irish legal system, and those who staff it and administer it, need to be viewed collectively as an instrument for keeping working people ‘in their place’ and for ensuring that the upper echelons of this society escape responsibility, whether criminal or civil, for their actions.

    Lenihan chose the current legal arrangements because, as an SC himself, he has to look after the boys and girls in the Bar and the big five firms. In the hierarchy of Irish social needs, the bankers come first, then the power professions (law, accountancy) come come, FF’s supplicants and groupies are next in line, then what’s left will be dished out to the rest of the population. The relevant legal fees (at least 2bn+), ultimately, will be paid by those on social welfare, low and medium income workers and others. And, with a certainty as clear as the laws of physics these same firms and practitioners will be to the forefront of using legal thuggery to supress resistance to water charges over the coming years.

  5. 9 FERGUS O'ROURKE October 16, 2010 at 7:51 am

    My question related to how it could be argued that *only* very rich people benefitted from the bank bail-out. That has not been answered.

    My point of view is not that of one who thinks that the bail-out is perfect, and the enormous amounts being wasted on legal costs are not a source of satisfaction to me, either.

    Plenty of lawyers advise social welfare recipients, low and medium income workers, striking workers and trade unions.

  6. 10 CMK October 16, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Fergus, ‘only’ very rich people benefited from the bank bailout in two ways, at least. First, there has been no wealth tax implemented, mooted or even contemplated by the state to assist in the cost of the bank bailout. Indeed, the tenor of discourse thus far (2008-2010) has been that even the mere mention of a wealth tax has been screamed down with a Bolshevisk intensity. The message has been articulated over and over and over again: ‘ we cannot impose the costs of rescuing the banking system onto those who benefit most from that system’. If you consider the Combat Poverty Agency’s (goddamn commies!!!!) report from 2009 which stated that 12% of Irish people don’t have a bank acccount you’ll surmise that that incorporates about 500,000 men, women and children who have no stake, whatsoever, in the Irish, privately owned, banking system. You may compare this to the 33,000 ‘milllionaires’ that the Bank of Ireland identified in it 2007, along with the EUR 805 ‘BILLION’ not million ‘BILLION, BILLION, BILLION’ (it bears repeating, three short years ago) net wealth reported then. Even if we were to incorporate a drastic reduction in that wealth of 80% to a 2010 figure of EUR 160 billion, a 20% wealth tax would give us a return of EUR 32 billion and – Hey Presto!! – deficit covered for about 20 months, no need to borrow again until mid-2012. That’s what a wealth tax set a level of basic rate of tax could possibly return. If the holders of this wealth were ‘patriots’ in the two Brians ‘we’re all in this together’ mould, they’d have no problem giving over what a moderately paid civil servant pays in tax, would they? After all, we’re all on the same side.

    Secondly, and related to the latter point. This (surprise, surprise, surprise and surprise again!!!) policy is dead in the water, even to advocate it is to render oneself to Siberia, far beyong the confines of respectable discourse in this state. That respectable discourse preferring to see ‘savage’ budgets enacted for four consecutive years, that is after the three savage budgets enacted in the past 18 months, as the only ‘realistic’ option. Social welfare, public sector pay,public sector provision – not things one associates with the ‘very rich’. These are all earmarked, as you know well, for cutting over the coming years, and let the devil take the hindmost with regard to the consequences of this policy.

    So, you see, the ‘very rich’ do benefit from the bailouts. If you can point me to any statements by Lenihan, Cowen, Coughlan where they demand that a 20% take be introduced on all wealth, declareable or otherwise, I’ll concede the argument. If you can’t point to such statements, well, that just reveals the bankruptcy of your position.#

    Oh, I know many lawyers advise social welfare recipients, the low and medium income groups and trade unionists. Unfortunately, their advise often consists of, I paraphrase: ‘pay up, shut up, and fuck off’. There is precious little fee income to found in either or all of these three groups. Certainly not enough to finance a decent property portfolio. No wonder, then, that the beating heart of the legal profession is in company law and vanity defamation cases by (surprise, surpise again!), the ‘very rich’. And, of course, probate for massive estates.

  7. 11 Hugh Green October 16, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Why should ‘Very Rich People Benefit’ be only considered a reasonable name when it is demonstrated that it is *only* very rich people who benefit from it? Children are certainly not the only people who benefit from the payment of Child Benefit. You wouldn’t say, oh, well seeing as it amounts to a source of income for the mother and it leads to the purchase of child-related products that would not otherwise get purchased, it cannot truly be called Child Benefit. The fact that its primary beneficiaries are children is enough to make Child Benefit a reasonable name for it. It is precisely the same logic that applies to the term ‘Very Rich People Benefit’. Anyhow, I think enough evidence has been provided here to show that the term, if not very elegant, conveys the truth of the situation. If it does not, then it should be simple enough to prove otherwise.

  8. 12 FERGUS O'ROURKE October 18, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    I think I understand now. Good weather is also a Very Rich People Benefit.

    This kind of thing is debasing the language.

    • 13 Hugh Green October 18, 2010 at 3:09 pm

      On the contrary, I don’t think you understand at all, as it seems you can’t see a difference between enacted government policies and naturally occurring phenomena. But I’m the one debasing the language.

      • 14 FERGUS O'ROURKE October 22, 2010 at 4:58 pm

        I do, of course, see the difference between naturally occurring phenomena and enacted government policies.

        You’re debasing the language, because you are referring to a government measure (ill-advised, we both agree, apparently) which is for the benefit of much more than the very rich as if it were solely for the benefit of that very small class of people. You appear to agree that it is not solely for the latter’s benefit, but seek to justify your tag on the basis that

        a) the very rich benefit from this
        b) the very rich benefit disproportionally from this, as they do from everything else

        I agree with both of the above, and didn’t need a long blogpost or lots of long and irrelevant tangential comments to learn about point (b) which, you may not realise, is not an insight unique to recent times, but almost as old as civilisation.

  9. 15 Hugh Green October 23, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    I haven’t made, nor would I make, the claim that the very rich benefit disproportionally from everything, because it isn’t true.

  10. 16 Julia October 30, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Wow, this was a good article with lots of very valid points. The ensuing comments seem to have lost sight of this and once again the focus is gone from the average little Johnny Soap to the banks banks and more banks. If banks went to the wall, people with the most money would lose out so however you paint it. We are bailing out the people with the most to lose, the ones with the most money!!

    But back to the topic of universality for children; it’s a very good point that means testing this payment will debase the parent child sacred relationship. I’m paraphrasing. The existing social welfare system in place for single parents receiving allowances is anti-family as you have people inspecting peoples homes to ensure that a partner doesn’t live there. So in some cases women remain single because when they number crunch it there’s too much to lose. There’s something very wrong here when you consider child welfare. Equally creating a situation when patents have to prove they are lesser than other wealthier parents is shameful.

    The points made by Hugh are I think being over looked by the vast majority of people. We all feel so hard done by on account of the bank bail out…for the wealthy, that we want to take anything we can from them. Maybe we are missing bigger social issues though. Before changing things, we shouldn’t overlook why those things exist in the first place.

  1. 1 A Brief History of Very Rich People « The Punishment of Sloth Trackback on October 15, 2010 at 4:38 pm

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October 2010

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