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Column It’s easy for ministers on high salaries to ignore the importance of child benefit

An across-the-board cut to child benefit was not a good move – but ministers on big salaries are removed from the realities of the man on the street, Nessa Toale writes.

WHEN MY DAUGHTER Beth was first born I received one monthly payment of €166 before it was reduced. I didn’t pay much attention to the drop in the child benefit then as I did think it was a very high payment. According to my mother, back in the 80s child benefit was a fraction of what was received now. I felt lucky to have the payment.

Even last year, when it was reduced further to €140 for the first child I didn’t worry about it too much. Having €10 less a month wasn’t really going to make much of a difference to me. However, this year, there is another €10 per month gone from my monthly budget. Since Beth was born, there has been a total of €36 per month reduction and she’s only three. Although I’m not headed for the poor house I am constantly making cuts and living frugally.

While I understand there are cuts to be made I would like to have seen a lot more thought put into it. Surely an across-the-board cut on child benefit was not the best answer. Yes, it was the easiest with no extra admin costs but there are many families that are depending on child benefit to get them through the month.

What I would have preferred to have seen in Budget 2013 was a proper look at how family services could be improved so that a reduction in the child benefit would not mean as much – things like subsidised childcare and education costs for all kids. The cost of childcare is a real barrier for people who want to get back out into the work place but in reality, childcare costs would take all of, and in some cases more than, their wages. Working for a loss while you are already struggling to put food on the table is just not feasible.

Different circumstances

I asked three other mums to tell me how it has affected them. They are all in very different situations – which shows that cutting everyone simply wasn’t fair.

Deborah, a working mum of one, wasn’t worried about money when her son was born but things have changed. She told me:

The drastic reduction in my take home pay while on maternity leave was the first clue. Although we had savings, having a good salary reduced to €262 per week maternity benefit for six months certainly took its toll. Our ‘good’ salaries were also getting eaten up by extra taxes such as the household charge and the increase in motor tax and increased rates for petrol, heating oil, and electricity.

Another mother is Alison, a mum to three kids and is down €38 per month. She has been finding things difficult for the last few years, but January was particularly bad. She told me that even though many people are broke just after Christmas, she believes that €38 would have made a big difference to her. Alison said:

I hate telling the kids I’ve no food there. Now, have to say, this is the first time it has been this bad. I don’t bring the kids anywhere these days as we have no money. If we hadn’t of bought this house that is costing us all we have then I’d have left Ireland by now.

Wasting money

Siobhan, another mother affected by the recent cuts, runs a local parenting website called Mumstown. She finds it hard to swallow that the government have spent €23m on the Poolbeg incinerator project, which was abandoned, and €26m on the children’s hospital before the location was changed. The wasting of so much money and the taking of money from those who need it is something that bothers her a lot.

Siobhan told me:

For the first and second child the cut was €10 which was bad enough each but for the third child it was €18 and the fourth, fifth, sixth and subsequent children it was €20 each. So a family with four children lost €58 and a family with 5 children lost €78. It’s a big cut in one go and has had a serious impact on many families.

She said the fact they cut the back to school allowance so much during the summer hurt families too, adding that she had very little faith in the government:

When Labour canvassed for our votes they swore they would tackle the mortgage crisis and not touch children’s allowance and they blatantly lied about both those issues. Despite all the petitions, marches they ignore the ordinary people and do what they want.

The child benefit cuts that came into effect this month have made a difference to a lot of families. My situation, and the situations of my friends mentioned here is testament that everyone’s circumstances are different. The speculation is that cuts will continue to be made until there is a flat rate of €100 per child. These cuts will have a detrimental effect on the children in our society if there aren’t improvements made in other areas like childcare and education.

It’s easy for ministers on high salaries to ignore the importance of child benefit to families. In most cases, I believe they are so far removed from the person on the street they have no idea how badly off people are and what a difference this particular cut makes. We could argue about means testing the payment, but the government would probably use admin costs as a reason not to implement it.

There are many groups on Facebook and other social media sites still discussing cuts and organising protests. I, for one, will be involved. Don’t just complain, stand up and be counted.

Nessa Toale is a single mother and a writer. Her book is called The Secret Beneath Bleeker Avenue. She also writes a blog:  Life, love and the pursuit of a crawling baby. More information can be found on her Facebook Page here. To read more articles by Nessa click here.

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