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The Debate Room: Should Child Benefit be linked to school attendance?

The plan to link Child Benefit to children’s school attendance records has come under much scrutiny this week.

Various

THE PLAN TO link Child Benefit to children’s school attendance records has come under much scrutiny this week. 

Child advocacy groups have slammed the proposal, which is believed to have come from the newly appointed Communications Minister Denis Naughten. This weekend, there are soundings that it could be the first proposal dropped from the Programme for Government. 

There are strong views on both sides of the argument, so we asked two commentators to give their views on a number of issues:

Aaron McKenna, Head of E-Commerce at the Digital Marketing Institute and columnist with TheJournal.ie 

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Social welfare is the third rail in politics: Touch it and you’ll be killed.

An awful lot of power courses through it, with fully 48.2% of the population being the beneficiary of a social welfare payment according to the latest statistical release by the Department of Social Protection.

The €1.9 billion child benefit program has long been the subject of discussion. It is a flat rate benefit handed out to over 615,000 families in respect of almost 1.2 million children in the country. There’s no means test and there’s no eligibility criteria save having a child. As billionaire Michael O’Leary sometimes points out, even he can claim it.

All through the recession, when deep cuts had to be made into services for the truly disadvantaged and impoverished, the idea of taking the benefit away from higher earners was nixed at every turn.

It was designed to give someone a hand up 

It was a singular example of the corruption in the welfare state: Originally designed to help those who needed a hand up, it has become a tool for vote winning at the expense of spreading the cash we have in the most targeted way to those who need it or in a way to affect the most positive outcomes for recipients.

Similarly this week a proposal to nix the benefit for parents who fail to get their children to school met with instant opposition. Politicians who rely on the votes of those who are less about the hand up than the hand out were quick to protest the honour of their constituents. Every case is a hard case, in their book, and the universality of the benefit should be maintained no questions asked.

There are, to be fair, cases in point where families have great difficulty getting their children to school; where child benefit would be sorely missed. It is the challenge to create a program that pays out to so many people, has clearly defined rules but some built-in discretion for officials dealing with the hard cases.

shutterstock_174265457 Source: Shutterstock/Areipa.lt

All welfare programs should have these pressure release valves, and we also need to acknowledge that a system designed to service millions will never get it perfect every time.

The idea that every single family that fails to get their children to school is a hard case undeserving of some stick to go with the carrot is ridiculous. You don’t have to pass any sort of a test to become a parent, and there are individuals – in the minority – out there who do not see the importance of education for their children.

Education can level the playing field

In the pillars of a good upbringing, education is among the most important. We live in a meritocracy, for the most part, and it is through a universal education that we most effectively level the playing field of opportunity. We invest a substantial amount – not enough, but still a lot – into education at all levels and for all strata, with specially appointed schools for particularly disadvantaged people.

For most of us, our education is the most long lasting and meaningful interaction we will ever have with government provided services.

Parents who wilfully fail to consistently send their children to school, who make no effort or see no importance in it, are perpetuating a form of abuse against their children. Abuse is a loaded word, but the effect that this failure will have on the life of a child over their full span of years is incalculable.

26/8/2015. Getting Ready To Go Back to School

Our instant idea when faced with any problem in society is to look up towards the government, to society, to the rich and the powerful. How can they solve this problem? When are we going to acknowledge that we can and we must also look down on those whose behaviour is so appalling and incomprehensible?

Destroying children’s lives

It should not only be ok to frown upon the wilful destroyers of children’s lives, such as parents who do not take education seriously; it should be government policy to beat them with a firm stick if they will not accept the many carrots of payments and supports available to them.

We get one go in life and much of what will happen to us is shaped inside our first ten, fifteen, twenty years; when we rely on the wisdom of our parents and teachers to shape our view of the world and the skills we take with us into adulthood.

It is not fair and it is not acceptable that we allow certain small minded individuals to keep their children locked into their own disadvantage and ignorance. Everyone deserves a chance, and we live in a country where we can effectively help people to better themselves through education. Anyone who wastes that opportunity on behalf of their child needs a stick to go with the carrots we offer them as incentive to doing the right thing.

Hard cases make bad law. There are hard cases that will need to be acknowledged and dealt with appropriately, where removing the benefit would be counterproductive. That is not all of the cases, however, and we need to make the tool available to social welfare workers to help prod certain people in the right direction.

June Tinsley, Barnardos Head of Advocacy

June Tinsley, Barnardos Head of Advocacy 2 Source: Patrick Bolger

Tucked away on page 82 of the Programme for Government, published on Wednesday evening, is a brief paragraph indicating the Departments of Social Protection and Education will “amalgamate” databases to allow poor school attendance to result in a docked child benefit.

The spin suggests this is a win-win move; ‘rewarding’ the dogged pursuit of education with a welfare payment. However the reality is a resounding lose-lose.

Children living in chaotic homes 

This is why. Imagine you’re a child living in a chaotic home. Your home is in a rural area and your parents are struggling with addiction issues. You have younger brothers and sisters who you help get up and ready for the school bus. Quite often this means you miss your school bus and there is no other way to get to school. Your parents don’t mind because it means you are there during the day to help out with household chores.

Within a few months you don’t mind missing school because you are given out to so much when you are there and you are so far behind with your schoolwork it’s becoming harder to keep up. Even your friends are less inclined to talk to you or spend break with you. You begin to think what’s the point?

Within weeks you notice your parents are arguing more about money – saying it’s your fault and so there isn’t enough food in the house or cash for fuel to heat the house and your pocket money is stopped.

If you were this child what would your next step be? What options would be available to you? What does the future hold for you? What type of work could you pick up? And what type of cycle would this perpetuate?

This is one example, but the situation can occur very easily – perhaps a parent is experiencing a period of poor mental health, or is incapacitated due to a physical disability or injury. It could happen that your parents weren’t interested in schooling and you have only ever had negative associations with education.

26/8/2015. Getting Ready To Go Back to School Source: Sam Boal

It might be that you have not been welcome in your school and have been made to feel you don’t belong there – as often happens with children from ethnic minorities including Traveller and Roma children.

Not the child’s fault 

When children miss large amounts of school it is rarely, if ever, the child’s fault. And yet it is always the child who is punished. As a first step they are denied access to education – the one ticket they might have to improve their opportunities and prospects in life.

And to add to that already heavy burden, the new government is now suggesting they will be financially disadvantaged on top of that. Barnardos hasn’t got access to the databases, but it would be a fair assumption to make that the majority of children who miss large amounts of school are from poorer households.

It is clear then that such a measure is not only ludicrous, it’s regressive, damaging and plain wrong. It is effectively introducing double discrimination to children who are, just because of the lottery of birth, already facing multiple other challenges.

They are precisely the ones who need extra encouragement, support and nurturing so they can attain a good education to give them a fighting chance in life; to overcome the odds stacked against them. They are precisely the ones who if supported, will contribute to a stronger society for everyone.

Barnardos is unequivocal – any measure to link child benefit payment with school education is anti-equality, anti-education, anti-society and anti-child.

It must immediately be dropped from the Programme of Government.

Now it’s over to you. What do you think — get involved in the comments section below. 

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