Osborne, the chancellor, caused alarm and anger when he talked about the unfairness of a “shift-worker” leaving for work early in the morning who looks up and sees “the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.1
George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer 2010-16, introduced a policy of austerity. This was intended stop benefit claimants living without making any effort to get work.2 He described benefit claimants as ‘shirkers’. (The elderly were protected as they’re an important demographic for Conservative Party electoral success.) Amazingly, child benefits were included in the austerity programme even though children couldn’t possibly be described as ‘shirkers’ in Osborne’s caricature.
Child Benefit 2010-16
Weekly child benefit increased from £20.30 for the eldest child in 2010 to £20.70 in 2016. This 2% increase occurred whilst inflation rose by 17.67%. Child benefit should have increased to £23.58 to keep pace. Osborne reduced annual child benefit by £165.36 by stealth. Second and subsequent children had benefits increased by 2.2% from £13.40 to £13.70 per week. Therefore, a family with two children lost £288.48 per year through Osborne’s use of inflation.3
Children were punished for being born into poor families. Osborne made the lottery of birth catastrophic and set them up for failure throughout their lives. “FSM [free school meals]-eligible pupils were 23% less likely to be in sustained employment aged 27 when compared to their peers who were not eligible for FSM”.4 In 2016 there were 1.9 million children living in out-of-work households..5 1.9 million children is the magnitude of Osborne’s policy on child benefits.
Educational Under-achievement and Poverty
The tragedy of Osborne’s austerity programme was that it deliberately exacerbated the poverty of families. The additional poverty which Osborne’s policy decisions created will cascade down the decades like an economic albatross.
Under-achieving children are less productive workers as it isn’t easy to skill-up people without decent competence in English and Mathematics. These subjects are a key indicator for training assumptions. “In 2019, 26.5% (144,000) of pupils in state-funded schools at the end of key stage 4 were disadvantaged. Of these pupils, just a quarter achieved English and Maths at grades 9-5, compared to half of non-disadvantaged pupils.”6 Osborne halved the numbers of disadvantaged achieving the Gold Standard of Grade 5+ in the foundation subjects for all subsequent study.
Disadvantaged Children and Health
Obesity isn’t a lifestyle choice.7 By systematically reducing the capacity of impoverished people to fund a healthy diet, their children suffer avoidable health problems. Obesity isn’t caused by poverty but is intimately correlated with it.8 Impoverished people don’t have to eat highly processed foods which are saturated in sugar, salt and carbohydrates but they do. And they do for excellent practical reasons. Those foods are cheap and fill you up.
British obesity impacts on about 25% adults and 20% of children aged 10-11.8 There are many diseases associated with obesity and exacerbating poverty means there will be increasing numbers of very ill people in the decades following Osborne’s policy decisions.
George Osborne was an adroit politician who gained enormous political credit with a glib fiscal policy: reducing the benefit burden. He had no understanding of the implications of his policy despite a huge amount of research.9 He caused deep and long-lasting damage to hundreds of thousands of people which will continue for decades. Osborne’s ignorance wasn’t unique. Child benefit should be recognised as an investment rather than a burden thereby making it politically attractive.
4 Obviously this is a very deterministic statement. Nonetheless if we dial forward to when impoverished children enter school and receive free school meals this is a key indicator of poor achievement. Outcomes for pupils eligible for free school meals and identified with special educational needs (publishing.service.gov.uk) p3
6 Tackling the disadvantage gap during the Covid-19 crisis | Children’s Commissioner for England (childrenscommissioner.gov.uk) See also Covid-19: impact on child poverty and on young people’s education, health and wellbeing – House of Lords Library (parliament.uk)
9 Marcus Rashford and the Free School Meals Debate | Odeboyz’s Blog (oedeboyz.com) See also the subsequent parliamentary debate Selected Quotes: The Free School Meals Debate 21st October 2020 | Odeboyz’s Blog (oedeboyz.com)