The UK’s Supreme Court has rejected a challenge to the “two-child limit” to child benefits, one of many austerity policies which have affected BAME women disproportionately.
At the beginning of July 2021, the UK Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the government’s “two-child limit” on child tax credit and Universal Credit. The rule has been in place since April 2017 and restricts the child benefits parents can receive to the first two children they have (for children born after April 2017). The main justification for the rule is that the families receiving benefits should “face the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves solely through work” and that the government wants to “encourage people to move into work and increase their hours”.
The problem is, for those struggling to make ends meet, that it is never that simple. There may be little work available, and it may be impossible to increase hours, either due to caring responsibilities or the availability of shifts and hours. The justification also fails to account for the rising poverty amongst those who are working: 3 in 5 of the households affected by the two-child limit are households where the adults have jobs. Wage inequalities mean that 1 in 3 children in larger families where at least one parent is employed currently live below the poverty line. Effectively, the government has implied that only those who have access to well-paid jobs, sufficient savings to have a buffer in case things go wrong, and are confident that they will continue to have that for 18 years, should have more than two children.
It should be clear that this rule and its justifications are discriminatory, and therefore unacceptable. The rule primarily affects single parents — 90% which are women, and with BAME communities being overrepresented amongst single parent households — and large families with low incomes, a large portion of which are in BAME communities. Therefore, it takes away the fundamental right to build a family and making personal decisions about how that is done. However, the UK Supreme Court’s conclusion was that there was an “objective and reasonable justification” for this discrimination, namely to “protect the economic wellbeing of the country”.
As a result, women are having to choose between having an abortion or having the means to raise their children. Women have spoken about their regret and sadness at not feeling able to continue a wanted pregnancy, and at a population level, abortion rates for women with two or more children have risen by 16.4% — significantly more than for any other group. For those who have gone through with the pregnancies, or fallen on hard times after having more children, they can face challenges ranging from not being able to afford a school trip for their child to having to count every penny and still not be able to cover basic necessities. The policy has directly led to increased child poverty, and Carla Clarke at Child Poverty Action Group has pointed out that, with this policy, children are not recognised “as deserving social protection in their own right”.
The policy also implicitly assumes that pregnancies and finances can be perfectly planned, which is not possible; as the pandemic has shown, huge, unpredictable events can hit at any time and can change circumstances for families quickly.
The two-child limit is only one of many policies implemented in the name of austerity which have affected BAME communities disproportionately, particularly BAME women. In 2016, it was predicted that by 2020 women of colour would have lost out on nearly double the amount of money that poor White men would have due to changes in taxes and benefit cuts. This disproportionate effect has occurred because BAME women work in the public sector to a greater extent than other groups, therefore suffering more from the cuts made there, and they are also more likely to be in low-paid jobs and insecure work. Racism and sexism also make it harder for BAME women to find work at all. All around, BAME women have suffered the most from austerity measures, having had to make difficult choices and go through stress which could easily have been prevented with better policies.
The social safety net should be just that: a safety net. It is meant to provide those who are most vulnerable and most in need with financial and social support so that they at the very least do not need to worry about basic necessities. It is deeply problematic that the government has pushed the rhetoric that those who need benefits should simply ‘work more’ — without addressing the deep-seated inequalities which make it difficult for people in BAME communities, particularly women, to even find jobs, and which have caused a rise in in-work poverty.
At JAN Trust, we work to empower minority ethnic women, and we strongly believe that they should have the ability to make choices about their own lives — and not be forced to make choices because the government is prioritising the “economic wellbeing” of the country over the wellbeing of its inhabitants.