FERGUS FINLAY: Redirecting spending on children might eliminate consistent poverty

DEAR Minister
I suggested last week that I thought you should go for a “big bang” approach to child benefit. My basic idea is that you should scrap the entire system and start again.

At the moment we taxpayers spend a lot on children. In your Department of Social Protection you spend several billions. So does the Department of Education and the Department of Health. Nowadays, the Department of Children spends some too.

I don’t see this as spending, but rather as investment. If we give our kids the best possible start in life, if we ensure that they’re healthy and well, and if we really ground them in a decent education, all of that is good for us. After all, they’re the ones who are (we hope) going to provide and care for us in years to come.

So I think there’s a very strong case for gathering together all the money we invest in children, and making damn sure it’s as well spent as possible. That it delivers results. That it meets targets.

Right now, that’s a surprising amount of money. In your own Department (and I’m not including children with disabilities here), you pay out €2.3bn under the general heading of children. But you also invest more than €300m in maternity benefit, which enables mothers to spend the most critical times with their babies.

The Department of Education, of course, spends many billions on the education of our children, and the Department of Health billions more on their health and wellbeing. The primary education system, for instance, costs around €3bn, and the second level system costs another €2.7bn.

The wide range of primary, community and hospital services for young people adds up to another three billion spent by the Health Service Executive on children alone. There is a special allocation within the HSE budget — a critically important one — of €550m designed to be spent on the care and protection of vulnerable children. And the Department or Children spends more than €300m on early years education.

There was a famous American senator one time, a republican called Everett Dirksen. Widely regarded as a conservative he nevertheless was a key supporter of civil rights in America. He’s often remembered now though as the man who coined the phrase “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money”.

Even by Senator Dirksen’s standards, you’re talking about real money when you tot up the billions we spend on children. Taking it altogether it comes to about €12.2bn.

Guess what? That’s €11,020 per annum that the Irish taxpayer invests in the health, wellbeing and education of Irish children. That’s not counting a lot of additional supports — the cost of the third-level education system, for instance, or the amount of money spent on housing, play, libraries, and so on — all designed to a greater or lesser extent around the needs of children.

€11,020 is what we spend on what you might call the basics. That’s €212 a week, by the way — on every single child in the country.

You’ll probably think I’m nuts if I suggest that we take that sum of money and divide it up afresh. After all, the reform of education, health and other systems that would be necessary could well be a life-long task. But I still think it’s worth asking the question. Is every child in Ireland getting what we’re paying for? The best start we can afford? The best educational chances? The best health care?

Do you know the answer to those questions? I suspect that if you were in a position to commission a really exhaustive value-for-money audit, and hire all the best experts in the word, they’d come up with a reasonably simple answer.

A lot of our kids are indeed getting the best. The best that the State can afford, added to the best their parents can afford.

Because on top of all the taxpayers’ money there’s the money we invest in our kids as parents and citizens. Most families devote a sizeable proportion of disposable income, on top of whatever child support they get, to making sure their children are well-nourished, ready and able for school, and happy. Between us all, we’re doing a pretty good job by many — perhaps most — of our kids.

But not all of them. And the reason, the experts will tell you, is that the money isn’t well enough targeted. It’s simply not always going where it’s needed most.

That’s true of the health and education systems too. But I suspect, as I said earlier, that if I were to suggest that we scrap all that — health and education as well as the social protection money — and start again, there’d be people on the way to have me taken away to somewhere where my bewilderment could be treated.

(in one respect, mind you, the policy-makers have already decided to start again. The €550m I mentioned earlier for the care and protection of vulnerable children is being taken away from the HSE next year and being given to a new dedicated agency, the Child and Family Support Agency. That’s because children — and us — haven’t been getting value for money from the way those services are delivered now.)

If you leave all that to one side for the moment — the €9bn plus that we spend on health and education — you and Frances Fitzgerald still have around three billion to spend on a pretty singular purpose. Let’s call it “giving our kids the best possible start in life”. That’s around €3,000 a year per child. It’s not bad.

And it would be even better if you decided — as you could — that all children need and are entitled to support, but some children need more. If, for instance, you set out to ensure that every child in Ireland was supported to the tune of €1,500 a year, that would leave more than €1.3bn to be targeted on the poorest children in Ireland.

If you decided to spend that money on, say, the half-million poorer children, that would enable you to provide an additional €2,600 per annum for each of them, giving them a total of €4,100.

And you could graduate the payments still further if you wished, driving more support to where it’s needed most. I don’t have the resources to do it in a column, but think of it this way. There are 100,000 children in Ireland who live in consistent poverty every year. That’s hungry children, with not enough protein in their diet. They’re colder children because their clothes aren’t adequate and their houses aren’t warm.

Imagine if you succeeded over four or five years in eliminating consistent poverty entirely among children. Think of the foundation that would put under economic growth and a stable society for generations to come. And if you decided to use the system to gradually begin lifting those children out of consistent poverty, would anyone — even the Troika — begrudge that?

Wouldn’t it be worth making a fresh start for?


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