Socialism and Child Benefit (in 1988)

Socialism and Child Benefit

by Angela Clifford

The Tories [in 1988] are freezing child benefit. They have disarmed Labour opposition by promising to improve means related family payments instead. But it is a mistake to suppose that one can be a substitute for the other.

Of course it will be argued that at the moment child benefit is going to families who don’t need it. It is said that, in such cases, it merely serves as pocket money for spoiled brats. This is true. But there are still overwhelming reasons for socialists to maintain and expand child benefit. If necessary, the money can be ‘taken back’ by making it a taxable income.

The reason for having child benefit in an advanced industrial society relates to the changing nature of the family.

From the Family Wage to Equal Pay

At one stage in capitalism the objective of trade union. activity was to obtain and defend a family wage. A man must be able to support a wife and raise a family on his income. Women who went to work only expected to get a single income – not a multiple income in the way men did. This arrangement reflected the actual social relations that existed. On the whole, women were supported by their husbands while raising their children.

With further developments in capitalism women increasingly undertook paid labour. The years in the home were either reduced or not present at all. And quite naturally what had seemed just and proper for the previous era no longer seemed so. Social relations were changing. And the arrangement that men got the multiple wage while women got a single wage no longer seemed right or equitable: it no longer reflected social relations. The new demand which reflected the new role of women was equal pay for equal work.

But what was the equal pay to represent in practice? Was it to mean that neither men nor women were to get the multiple wage? Were all to get enough only for the needs of one? If so, what was to happen about children? Or was it to mean that all were to get the multiple wage? Were all to get enough to raise children on their wage, regardless of the partner? Was there going to be such a great social surplus of wealth so that both men and women would have plenty in hand in case they raised children? Where would such lavish provision come from? There is a real problem here.

1945: the beginnings of a new approach

The principle of equal pay in an advanced industrialised society required a new approach to the costs of raising the next generation. This principle was introduced to some extent in 1945 but it has been lost sight of. In 1945 it was agreed that educating children was a cost to be borne by the whole of society and not the parents in particular cases. As tax-payers, parents contributed to the costs of educating children, but they no longer had to face 15 years of hardship to pay for educating their own children. They paid taxes before and after raising their children and thus had the costs spread over a long period. In addition, people who did not have children themselves contributed to the regeneration of society. And, of course, the well-off subsidised the less well-off, as their taxes were higher.

This principle, introduced for education in 1945, holds the key to how society should implement the principle of equal pay, but at the same time arrange for the raising of children. Clearly there are many more costs to raising children than educating them. They must be fed, clothed, housed and socialised. It makes every sense to subsidise these costs out of taxation revenue: taxation both of employers and employees. Clearly it is right that men and women should get a single wage each and not a multiple wage. What might be called the ‘family element’ in pay should be taken in taxation and paid out in the form of child benefit, so much per child.

Means Testing and Social Justice

As to the argument that these payments should be means-tested – that would contradict the great social principle underlying the equal pay development: the society is paying for the raising of its children. Another objection is that testing produces the ‘pauper’ mentality – the attitude which tries to screw the state for every penny. It is a necessary evil for many payments but it is not a necessary evil for child benefit.

But what about social justice? Will not families be getting child benefit who do not need it? To this it must be replied that social justice is very well served by child benefit. For a start, the better off will pay a greater amount into the social fund than the worse off. There is redistribution in child benefit. And the bigger the benefit, the greater will be the redistribution. And secondly, if child benefit is treated as taxable income, then it will diminish in value as one goes up the income scale.

A Socialist conception

It should be said that this socialist conception of child benefit is different in principle to child benefit as it appears in many European countries, although the result – of substantial payments for children – appears the same.

In France and Belgium for instance, there are very large payments to families for having children. In France, where there is no social security as we know it, it is possible for parents to live comfortably if they have enough children. The reason for child benefits in such countries are nationalistic. Given the population losses due to war – and the advantages of having a large population for war – there is in the historical culture of such countries sufficient reason for encouraging a large population. Perhaps, these days, economic weight and cultural ambitions have taken over from war as the motive. Be that as it may, child benefit in such countries has a nationalist rationale.

In Britain the rationale would not be nationalist but socialist, just as the whole thrust of the welfare state has been socialist – which it need not have been (many different systems could develop a welfare state: the fascist case springs to mind at once).

Socialists have every interest in opposing the Tory proposal to freeze child benefit. It runs counter to the progressive trend in society and undermines the equal pay revolution.


This article appeared in January 1988, in Issue 5 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  One of many on the website.  See