The government are set to appeal the high court's ruling—even though they knew from the start the policy would cause serious harm to poor childrenby Maya Goodfellow / June 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
How many children are the government willing to plunge into poverty to stick to their ideological beliefs? The answer, it seems, is a lot. Yesterday the High Court judge Justice Collins ruled that the government’s benefit cap, which puts a limit on the amount of state support a household can receive, was unlawful. “Real misery is being caused to no good purpose,” he told the court—with children and single parents bearing the brunt.
In our current welfare system, children suffer for their parents’ situation—which, in turn, is often thrust upon them by a system that has seen in-work poverty grow and wages stagnating. About 4 million children are classed as poor, and it’s thought that figure will rise. That means children going without meals, having to live in uninhabitable accommodation or being turfed out of their homes and onto the streets. As the judge pointed out, “the cap cannot but exacerbate this,” dragging more people and their children into poverty.
An impossible challenge
The Tories’ perverse justification was that the cap would incentivise people to work. This logic treats people who claim benefits as workshy layabouts who are a drain on society. It divides parents, and therefore families, into David Cameron’s “strivers” and “skivers.” Families become scapegoats: if public services are crumbling around you, the logic seems to go, blame the people (and their children) forced to use state support, not the government which is intentionally cutting funding.
But for some, “striving” is impossible. The government’s policy is particularly discriminatory against lone parents with young children. To avoid the cap you have to work a minimum of sixteen hours a week (or equivalent). When work barely pays, this is near impossible for single parents up and down the country: there’s no free childcare for children under two, and the costs of someone else looking after your child in the day are astronomical. And so parents have to use state support—and are pushed into poverty.
What’s worse, the impacts of the cap could last those children a lifetime: children from poorer backgrounds don’t do as well as their wealthier counterparts at all stages of education and they are more likely to have chronic health problems. A state that doesn’t support poorer households creates a chasm of inequality from the moment children are born.
The more you look at the details of the cap, the more galling it is. There is a gendered aspect, too: two of the lone parents who brought the case before the courts had been made homeless because of domestic abuse. As a result of the cap, their benefits were, or were expected to be, cut. While we don’t know for sure these were women, we do know 90 per cent of single parents are women and, according to the ONS, women are more likely than men to have experienced intimate violence. This policy, therefore, can force women to make a choice: between being trapped in domestic abuse—or, leaving, but risking a fall into poverty.
This kind of insidious state-sanctioned misogyny has become common place for the Tories: from the “rape clause,” which forces survivors to prove a third child was conceived as the result of rape to qualify for further child benefits, to closing down women’s refuges, the government have introduced policies that actively hurt women.
A flagship policy—despite the evidence
How did this happen? Despite having all of the evidence laid out in front of them, the cap was one of the Tories’ flagship social security policies. Their own figures showed 50,000 low-income families—and an estimated 126,000 children—were at risk of “serious financial hardship” because of it. And, as Child Poverty Action Group have pointed out, the government recognised that 7 in 8 households hit by the cap are ones in which the adults can’t work: because they are looking after very young children, are too ill to work or have a work-limiting disability.
The figures also showed two-thirds of families affected are lone parents—meaning the policy has a particular impact on people of colour, who make up 16 per cent of lone parents claiming income support. In 2015, the Runnymede Trust found that reducing the cap would likely increase race inequality. Based on this evidence, it is clear that the Tories knowingly introduced a policy that further pauperised marginalised people—and yet, despite an election result which shows such punitive policies are unpopular, the government are determined to find the time, and the money, to fight the ruling.
The welfare state matters
The purpose of social security is to look after each other and give people who need it the support to live a decent life. It’s the hallmark of a compassionate, functioning society. That the cap was introduced in the first place, when the overwhelming evidence showed it impoverishes children, tells us the Tories aren’t interested in the purpose of state support; that they want to appeal the court’s decision shows how deep their beliefs go.
Wedded to an ideology that’s fuelled by individualism and a belief in small government, the Tories behave as if the welfare state is an impediment to a perfect society run by the market. From the 2008 crash to austerity, we’ve seen the violent effects of governments that legislate to put profit before people: rising poverty as the wealthy see their riches grow, a national housing crisis, and thousands who have died after being declared “fit for work.”
The government is ideologically committed to a position that abandons and castigates the most marginalised in society. In January, Theresa May promised to address the “burning injustices” in our society. Yesterday’s ruling proves once again that her government is the architect of some of those very same injustices.