"Benefits encourage problem families, says Iain Duncan Smith"

This is the page 1 headline from today’s Daily Telegraph. Duncan Smith is suggesting that allowances for more than two children should be largely suspended. This is shaping up as a major assault on families who receive benefits.

The Telegraph article claims that

  • “many of those receiving money for large families had drug and alcohol problems… There are about one in five households where no one works and 1.5 million children are growing up with a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol.”
  • “Official figures show that 120,000 of the most troubled and difficult families cost the taxpayer about £9 billion a year.”
  • “Every household is now spending the equivalent of £3,000 a year in tax for welfare payments.”

They comment that “The benefits system is supposed to be a safety net — not a lifestyle choice to encourage people to have so many children they will always have to be dependent on the state”.

Here, I am something of a disadvantage – their job is much easier than mine. I am supposed to respond with evidence; they can just make things up. The actual evidence is not very strong, but here is what I’ve been able to dig up.

  • The figures for parents with drug and alcohol problems are reviewed in Children’s needs – parenting capacity, TSO 2011, pp 36 ff. They report estimates that 705,000 children live with a parent dependent on alcohol in the UK, and that in England, Scotland and Wales up to 360,000 children have a parent who misues drugs. Those figures may overlap, but they come nowhere near 1.5 million. There is no direct connection between these factors and being out of work.
  • The definition of ‘troubled families’, which I have considered in this blog before, is primarily based on material disadvantage, not on the presentation of social problems. No justification has been given for the estimated cost.
  • The Telegraph’s figure for “welfare payments” seems to be a rough estimate based on total expenditure for benefits. (Correction, 28th October: This figure is actually a mis-quote from the Secretary of State, who claimed that working-age benefits were costing £3000 extra over the period of the Labour government. The original claim is also inaccurate, and I have considered it in more detail in a subsequent entry for 28th October.))
  • Benefits can hardly be described as a ‘lifestyle choice’ if people don’t choose to stay on them. I have reviewed the figures for long-term dependency on this blog before. Most people who are dependent are pensioners; among non-pensioners, the vast majority are disabled; hardly anyone is continuously in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance.

The key point made by Duncan Smith is that benefits create perverse incentives for large families. With that in mind, I’ve reviewed the evidence about large families on benefits. The evidence is not strong; the best figures I was able to find from the DWP stop in 2007. The figures come from the DWP tabulation tool, based on their 5% sample of claimants.

The first question is how many ‘large’ families there are. There were 1,380,000 families with children in receipt of benefits – the other claimants were families without children. Of those, 190,000 had 3 children, 71,000 had four and 35,000 had five or more; that is 21% of the total. This is higher than the proportion of families with 3 or more children in the population as a whole, but we are talking about less than 300,000 families. Larger families on benefit tend to be older families; in the majority of cases (58%) their youngest child was at least five years old.

Further note, 27th October: Channel 4 has found better, more up to date information resulting from a Freedom of Information request. In May 2011, there were 1,354,280 families with children in receipt of benefits: 194,220 had 3 children, 76,310 had four 25,980 had five, 8780 had six, 3200 had seven, 1080 had eight, 360 had 9, 130 had ten and 50 had 11 or more. That comes to 310,110.

The second question is whether benefits encourage people to have children. I cannot tell from the figures how many people have children while they are on benefits, but at least I can say something about the age of their families.

Duration on oldest
current benefit
All families with children At least one child under 5 % with a child under 5
Less than 2 years 499,600 272,100 55%
2-5 years 340,600 169,400 49.7%
5 years or more 539,700 136,800 25%
Total 1379,900 611,300 100%

The table shows that, while some families do have children while in receipt of benefit, families who get benefits for longer periods are markedly less likely than others to have children. There are obvious reservations to make about these figures – for example, I do not have the precise ages of the children, and I cannot break down families by the age of the parents – but there is no reason here to accept that people on benefits are being encouraged to have children.

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