The two-child limit and Conservative contradictions

By Bernadette Meaden
May 5, 2020

The two-child limit, which restricts child allowances in universal credit and tax credits to the first two children in a family, was introduced in April 2017. Today {5 May 2020), the Church of England and Child Poverty Action Group have called for it to be suspended, and published a report on its impact after three years.

As Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) explains “The Government's rationale for the policy is that parents who receive social security support should make the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves solely through work. But the coronavirus has exposed the flaw in this simplistic view of family planning. Few parents, however responsible, can guarantee the financial security of their families for the next 18 years.”

In effect, what the government is saying through this policy is that anyone who is not wealthy should never have more than two children, as they can never guarantee their future financial security. Having more than two children thus becomes a privilege reserved for the wealthy.

When the two-child policy was being considered, there was debate about a book by Adam Perkins, The Welfare Trait: How State Benefits Affect Personality which argued that much unemployment was not due to economic factors but to people having ‘work-resistant’ personalities, a trait which, Perkins argued, can be inherited.

The solution, said Perkins, was to discourage benefit claimants from having children, to eliminate this undesirable trait from the population. The book was endorsed by prominent Conservative supporters like Toby Young, and favourably reviewed on the website of the Adam Smith Institute by Andrew Sabisky, the ‘superforecaster’ later appointed a Downing Street adviser by Dominic Cummings. That review is no longer available, but economist Richard Murphy responded to it by writing a blog in which he said, “The Adam Smith Institute is now willing to argue that those on benefits are genetically different to the rest of us” 

It wasn’t surprising that Sabisky backed Perkins, as he himself had previously written “One way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies, creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception”   

But then, in July 2017, just as the two-child limit for benefit claimants had become law, Sabisky wrote a paper for the Adam Smith Institute – on, of all things, Britain’s fertility crisis. 

This paper bemoaned Britain’s ageing population and said, “The economic costs of this ageing process are vast.” Sabisky identified the price of home ownership as one of the main factors preventing people having as many children as they wanted, and advocated “Free-market reforms to housing regulations” as a solution. He argued, “our governments must learn to construct policies that do not accidentally have the side effect of making it harder to have children.” And yet in this paper, full of dire warnings about the impending economic disaster of an ageing population, there is no mention of a policy that had just been introduced with the specific aim of discouraging (poor) people from having more than two children.

So, within the space of eighteen months, Sabisky had embraced the idea of discouraging benefit claimants from having more than two children, and then declared an ageing population to be one of the biggest problems facing Britain. This really does reflect a wider confusion amongst many Conservatives like Iain Duncan Smith, who see an ageing population as a big problem, and whose own think tank proposed that we raise the state pension age to 75 in response, but just cannot bring themselves to feel relaxed about poorer people having the same number of children as them. (Four, in the case of Iain Duncan Smith) They argue that people on benefits must make the same responsible choices as those who are working – seemingly ignorant of the fact that two thirds of the people on benefits and affected by the two-child limit are indeed working.

As today’s paper from CPAG and the Church of England points out, “If we continue with this policy, more than two million children will be affected before the end of this Parliament, trapping many of them in poverty. We should be helping parents to raise happy, healthy children – especially during the first years of a child’s life, when the foundations are laid for their future development.”

All children should be regarded as precious assets to our society, whatever their background, and nurtured accordingly. When they lose out, we all lose out. The two-child limit impoverishes children in the name of promoting responsibility. The responsible thing to do would be to scrap it immediately, before it blights the lives of any more of our children.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 

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