Social Justice

We need to end the two-child benefit cap and the damaging rhetoric around it – once and for all

Ruth Patrick and Tracey Jensen write about why Labour must commit to ending the two-child limit and the stigma against large families

three children holding hands

The two-child limit is described as a "callous" policy which unfairly targets larger families. Image: Unsplash

The two-child limit restricts means-tested social security benefits to the first two children in a household, and in this general election campaign, it has become totemic – both of the punitive and harmful policies introduced by Conservative-led governments over the past 14 years, and of Labour’s hesitancy when it comes to championing social security.

In July last year, Keir Starmer pledged that his Labour Party would keep the two-child limit, and has since been subject to sustained critique. The two-child limit disproportionately impacts the poorest households, with three-quarters of those affected in the poorest third of households.

How can a political party claim to be serious about tackling child poverty if they are willing to restrict support to children simply because they happen to have two or more older siblings? Other parties have been bolder in this general election campaign and opposition to the two-child limit has come from often surprising quarters – not least from the Conservative’s Suella Braverman and Reform’s Nigel Farage.

To understand the significance of the two-child limit in this election, we need to remind ourselves of the long-standing stigma reserved for larger families, both in the UK and in the US, where the idea of ‘welfare queens’ and ‘benefit broods’ have been mobilised to advance devastating cuts to social security.

In the early years of the Conservative-led coalition government, a heavily orchestrated and highly effective assault on ‘welfare’ sought to demonise people in receipt of social security. Politicians borrowed from tabloid media stories and reality television to propose that the British welfare system was being abused and drained by welfare cheats, fiddlers and fraudsters. 

A new genre of television that exploded at this time, popularly known as ‘poverty porn’, provided heavily edited and sensationalised accounts of ‘life on benefits’ that fed into this demonisation process. Politicians drew on high-profile (but statistically rare) examples of ‘supersize’ families from the tabloid media to generate resentments about the welfare benefits they claimed. 

Most infamously, George Osborne mobilised the murder in a house fire of Mick Philpott’s seven children to suggest that an ‘overly generous’ welfare system was to blame.  

Over time, key groups who are disproportionately reliant on social security – like larger families – have been so effectively demonised that their benefit entitlements have been diminished, made conditional and restricted, and even withdrawn, with barely a whisper of public outcry. The ‘common sense’ suggestion, used time and time again in debates about the two-child limit, seems to be that people simply should not have children if they cannot afford them. 

But what this ‘common sense’ completely ignores is the lived experiences of larger families.  In reality, anyone’s situation can change at any time, and so it is impossible to predict whether you can afford to bring up a child for the next 18 years, unless you are someone who has a very large and stable income – something increasingly rare, except on the Conservative frontbenches.

Relationships break down, people get ill, and die before they should, and the social security system was designed to support us when these difficult things happen. The two-child limit blocks that mechanism and places an arbitrary restriction on family size. 

Research has shown the harm caused by the two-child limit, and the extent to which the policy is a key driver of increasing child poverty. While policymakers often present larger families as ‘workless’, we have found in our own analysis that they are in fact routinely working incredibly hard, whether in paid employment (59% of those affected by the two-child limit in 2023 were in working families), or through other forms of contribution.

Parents of larger families are by their very nature busy with the work of parenting; work which is incredibly intensive, draining and often much more demanding than work in the formal labour market. Significantly, too, they are having to do additional work because of the financial penury that the two-child limit causes them: those affected by the two-child limit have to spend time stretching limited budgets, shopping around to try and make ends meet, finding creative ways to raise a few extra pounds.

In the Benefit Changes and Larger Families project we heard how Wendy was no longer able to read her children a bedtime story – she had to spend her evenings travelling to supermarkets to scour the shelves for reduced price food. This is no way to live, and no government worth its name can oversee a policy as harmful and callous as the two-child limit.

All children should have what they need to flourish, regardless of how many siblings they have. The two-child limit can and must be removed, and this should be done as part of a wider commitment to safeguarding social security and dismantling destructive caricatures of those who rely on social security.

Dr Ruth Patrick’s work on the Benefit Changes and Larger Families project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily the foundation.

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