“Should we be paying people to have children?”

Thus ran the not-at-all-leading title of a debate on BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live earlier today. Apparently it was not obvious to the programme-makers that a maximum of £20.30 extra per week per child isn’t really enough to support said child, or to persuade someone that they should start procreating.

The debate focused on whether David Cameron is right to cut child benefit for wealthier families, and whether child benefit is necessary full stop. The ever-delightful Ann Leslie, from the Daily Mail, trotted out the usual right-wing bilge about single mums who should have thought twice before they got knocked up – haven’t they heard of contraception? – and decent working-class people who refuse to let certain women into their houses because they have five kids and “live off other people’s tax money”. Quite how she thinks a condom is going to prevent the children’s dad pissing off / being abusive / not being right for the mum is anyone’s guess (woe betide any woman who actively chooses to raise a child without a man present!). And we all know how easy it is to get a job when you’ve got five children to look after. Especially with our carer-friendly working culture and booming economy.

But right-wing nonsense aside, Cameron’s child benefit policy seems to me an obvious tactic to a) paint a a false veneer of fairness over an unfairly-targeted programme of cuts and b) try and deflect attention from these cuts by getting the right-wing middle class press up in arms. On the face of it, I think the idea that wealthier families shouldn’t receive money they don’t need is fair enough. But means testing brings with it yet more confusing and complicated paper work, huge admin costs, sneaky rules aimed at ensuring as few people as possible are able to claim the benefit, and the possibility that those who most need the money will not have the time, support and knowledge necessary to apply for and receive it. Better, surely, to say that as a society we value children and wish to support their carers so we will continue to give them a bit of extra cash with no strings attached, then take back money from wealthier families through different channels.

This proposal – like the rest of the cuts to come – is not based on fairness. Fairness would be targeting the wealthy individuals and corporations who avoid paying billions of pounds in tax, not women with caring responsibilities and children. Fairness would be choosing to cut spending on weapons and war, not on vital benefits and services for young people and the elderly, disabled people and those already living in poverty. Fairness would be taking profits back from the banks and wealthy companies and using that profit to create a fair society, where people are valued for how they support others, not how good they are at selling products that no one really needs or screwing over the rest of us to make money for a handful of super rich share holders. Taking a few dozen quid a week off middle and upper class families – some of whom are most likely propping up this sorry state of affairs anyway – isn’t going to make the blindest bit of difference.

Image by Alan Cleaver, shared under a Creative Commons licence.