Monday, 18 October 2010

how i spent your money

I WANT thousands of pounds of your hard-earned cash starting next September, and that's just the start of it.
Sounds bad, doesn't it? Unless I put it the more conventional way, namely: I'm about to apply for a primary school place for my son, and I think his education (like all children's education) should be funded from everyone's taxes.
The looming threat of the Great Spending Axe falling this Wednesday set me thinking about what my family takes from the state - or more accurately what my son takes, since he's the spendthrift one (we consume public services most heavily when we're either fresh from the cradle or close to the grave).
From the minute he was born - expensively, if probably life-savingly, by Casearean - it can seem as if all he and I have done is hoover up perks. Health visitors, vaccinations, free prescriptions and dental treatment, child benefit, even free baby yoga at the local children's centre: then as he got older, free bookpacks, tax breaks for childcare via a salary sacrifice scheme, subsidised playgroups, swimming and library access, various over-anxious trips to the doctor, and a free part-time nursery place. For three years, we have been merrily spending your money. Were we worth it?
Hopefully, in decades to come his taxes will be funding your pensions. It is not impossible, I suppose, that he will discover a cure for cancer (though he currently wants to be a frog when he grows up). And of course, his parents paid their whack for decades, so you could argue we're just getting some of it back.
But to the one in five of our contemporaries who paid the same taxes and either didn't want or couldn't have children, that may seem (as the blogger Iain Dale suggests here) unfair. And while children are generally a good idea should one wish the human race to continue, the planet isn't exactly short of the blighters.
So as that axe descends and everyone feels the pain, I suspect a bigger debate may begin about what children contribute to the greater good, aside from ruining perfectly good restaurants by running round and shouting. Perhaps just as some childfree employees feel aggrieved (however unfairly) about parents' rights to time off and leave, as public money gets tight there will be a groundswell of indignation about spending on children. I certainly can't defend every single penny spent on mine.
Nonetheless, I still think there's a sound case for you subsidising my children, and me subsidising yours - and not just because early investment in infant health, nursery education, and family support saves millions being spent in adulthood on problems that could have been solved cheaply in the cradle.
It is a fundamental human instinct to protect and nurture the next generation, to hope for better times, to want more for them than we had for ourselves: it fosters longterm thinking, inspires human progress, drives us forward as a species. Let's just hope we are still going forwards after Wednesday.


  1. Interesting, thought I'd throw this in the mix. "We are currently consuming the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support human activities" From the WWF Living Planet Report. Will there be pressure to have fewer children in the future?

  2. I think perhaps you underestimate the pension issue. It's not just public pensions, but private pensions that depend on there being enough children down the line. If everyone only has 0.5 children (say 1 per couple) then retirement would be essentially unaffordable except for a very small number of years.

  3. I think we spend public money on children, not because we care about the cohort of children as a whole, but because we want to level the playing field. Otherwise, even more so than is the case today, your opportunities would be determined by your parents' station in life and other factors over which you have no control.

    Public services also provide a sense of solidarity and cohesion, which surely has benefits beyond the kids receiving the direct advantages of public education, health and care.

  4. We need a cohort of young people to replace us for many, many reasons. Yes they're expensive, but so are elderly people (think of their reliance on the NHS), and it's interesting that they've escaped the cuts to universal benefits, whereas children haven't (child benefit). Maybe more of them vote's certain that more of them vote than younger people, so they're a more powerful lobby. Young people themselves don't even have the vote (at 16). I'll be elderly one day so don't begrudge people a poverty-free old age in the least, but those who are child-free should really try and restrain their resentment and enjoy their lives (and salaries, can't remember when I spent a pay packet entirely on myself). Funny that in times of hardship we find it so hard to pull together and point fingers so easily, not really in our best interests.