Opinion

Two-child limit on benefits is cruel and unfair. Politicians must rethink ahead of general election

Professor Martin O'Neill writes that the next government must prioritise children in policy, and that means scrapping the two-child limit on benefits

two child limit/ three kids

Families with more than two kids miss out because of government policy. Image: Unsplash

When it comes to debates about the fairness or effectiveness of policies such as the two-child limit for universal credit and child tax credit, or about what needs to be done to fix the social security system or early years education and care, politicians have lost sight of the children who should be at the heart of the discussion.

Children aren’t just numbers in a spreadsheet. We need to look at these issues differently, in a way that takes children seriously in their own right.

Arguments about policies that profoundly affect children’s life-chances often focus almost entirely on the impacts of those policies on children’s parents, whether that’s in terms of getting parents back into work or influencing their choices about family size.

In this way, the government’s attempted justification for the two-child limit focus on the issue of fairness between parents with small families and those with larger families, as well as the aim of incentivising parents not to have larger families in the first place.

Keir Starmer, meanwhile, has justified keeping the two-child limit if Labour win power on the supposed grounds of fiscal responsibility, saying that he needs to take “tough choices” in order to be fair to taxpayers.

When spurious fairness arguments are used to divide ‘hard-working families’, whose income comes only from work, from those who receive means-tested benefits, as again was the case for the two-child limit, they reinforce the Victorian idea of the deserving and undeserving poor. This sets up a false distinction between ‘taxpayers’ and ‘benefit scroungers’, when in reality most families affected by the two-child limit are in work, and everyone requires support from the state at some point during their lives.

Most importantly, this ‘fairwashing’ by politicians also masks the impact of the policy on the children who should be at the centre of the conversation. And yet it is abundantly clear how unfair this policy is for the 1.5 million children in the UK who are directly affected by it, leaving aside its disproportionate impact on women, and on families from certain ethnic and religious communities.

The two-child limit directly discriminates against children in larger families (as the UK Supreme Court found in 2021), reducing their wellbeing and life chances simply because they have two or more siblings – something which is entirely out of their own control.

Worst of all, the two-child limit fundamentally fails to take seriously the needs and entitlements of children themselves. In looking, unsuccessfully, to achieve policy ends of reducing social security expenditure, or incentivising more ‘responsible’ behaviour among parents, the policy treats the children themselves as mere means to an end, rather than as independently important members of the broader political community.



And this moral failing has practical consequences for all of us. The two-child limit is a vivid example of the terrible harms wreaked by short-term political and economic thinking. Child poverty is not only a disaster because it wrecks the emotional and mental wellbeing of families as they are now, or because it reduces the current educational attainment of affected children, but also because it stunts the long-run life chances of those children; it is associated with health problems later in life, with behavioural problems, and with reduced long-term educational attainment.

Enacting policies that predictably drive up rates of child poverty, as the two-child limit manifestly does, not only directly wrongs the children and families who bear the brunt of these policies, but has the further effect of generating social costs that are pushed into our future.

Unfairness damages sustainable economic growth, social cohesion and democracy. The two-child limit fails to achieve its intended objectives of getting more parents into work and discouraging larger families; instead, it pushes more families into poverty and makes it harder for parents to find or sustain paid work. It’s high time that we got rid of it; the moral, political and policy arguments for scrapping it are overwhelming.

The greater societal fairness that would be achieved by abolishing the two-child limit is a precondition for the healthier, happier and more productive society that we should all hope to see. To take the lives of children seriously in their own right, and not just to see them as pawns in a political game, the abolition of the two-child limit cannot come soon enough, whichever party forms the next government.

Professor Martin O’Neill specialises in political philosophy at the University of York.

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