Comment Writer Rubika Latif discusses the two-child benefit cap and how this has led to many women terminating pregnancies they wanted to keep due to the financial hardship of COVID-19, arguing that the cap undermines the pro-choice debate and should be cut
Content Warning: This article discusses abortion
The two-child benefit cap is a government policy stating that only the first two children per family are eligible to receive additional support, unless they were born before 6th April 2017. Considering the plight that the pandemic has caused, some women stated that they had felt financial pressures and, therefore, reluctantly ended up terminating an additional pregnancy that they had otherwise wanted. If low-income families or those made redundant already happened to have ‘extra’ children, they are now more likely to rely on food banks because the cap has not been lifted as part of the governmental response to COVID-19. Although the government did provide an additional £20 per week to families on universal credit, which has been a lifeline for many vulnerable families, it is said to be a temporary measure and if removed, risks causing more than 3 million to fall into poverty.
The policy was part of a cut to limit public spending, but I think the cap undermines the impending hardship of families with additional children who were previously able to support themselves but have now found themselves redundant. With the sudden economic decline, it means that across the country, over 120,000 children have been pushed into poverty because additional children are not supported under the policy. Although the Supreme Court ruled that the benefit cap was ‘lawful’, Lady Hale’s judgment emphasised that children should not be deprived of the basic means of subsistence and ‘saving money cannot be achieved by unjustified discrimination.’
Although, the benefit cap is an incredibly complex issue and there are strong and mixed opinions, The Independent highlights that ‘six in 10 women hit by two-child benefit restrictions say policy forced them into ending pregnancy during Covid crisis.’ Since many pregnancies were wanted, some women detailed that they ‘felt deep regret and sadness’ and struggled to come to terms with their decision. As ‘pro-choice’ works both ways, I think the two-child benefit cap undermines a woman’s choice to have additional children if she so chooses to because it restricts financial support.
Iain Duncan Smith, welfare secretary at the time the cut was introduced, was at the forefront of the policy and said the tough policy would ‘teach parents that children cost money’. Although many may agree, I think this assertion is patronising, especially in the context of the current situation. There is a failure to recognise that the majority needing support are working, low-income families disadvantaged by the underlying contributors to poverty, such as insufficient wages, not enough hours, high costs of childcare, and rising prices. Combined with tabloids supposedly exposing the tiny proportion of those who exploited the system as the norm, ministers effectively pushed the ‘scrounger’ rhetoric to gain public support for the policy. I believe this has created an irresponsible stereotype and has validated limiting financial aid for families who happen to have more than two children but are now truly suffering in poverty. Therefore, it was arguably predictable that such policies designed to restrict support would be likely to influence a woman’s choice surrounding her pregnancy.
How much one earns can fluctuate and change overnight as highlighted by the economic impact of the pandemic. Katherine O’Brien from The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has called on the government to abolish the two-child support limit as a ‘matter of urgency,’ warning that women will continue ‘feeling forced into a corner between financial hardship or ending a pregnancy they wanted to keep’ if this limit continues to exist. This is consolidated by a Guardian article, which states ‘in these hard times, families unexpectedly crash-landing on to universal credit are discovering the full brutality of Britain’s benefits system.’ When a record 5.7 million people were on universal credit in October, there were millions relying on support for the first time. Many may have realised how the two-child cap could reduce the autonomy of a woman’s choice on whether to keep or abort a pregnancy. As a result, I think that a woman’s choice should not automatically fall victim to a policy that ultimately seeks to limit public spending, rather than helping those in need.
Alternatively, I imagine others will argue that the two-child cap is fair because it allows families to make realistic decisions. However, I believe that despite any theoretical incentives that the policy may have, the reality is that some women who had already chosen to go ahead with their pregnancies because they had felt financially secure, now face a difficult situation after sudden job losses have caused financial difficulties. Many families applied for universal credit for support during the crisis, only to find the policy did not support additional children unless exemptions applied in cases of non-consensual conception.
Ultimately, the two-child benefit cap has led to many women making decisions that they would have otherwise never made. The significant influence of the policy has led to some women regretting their decision, especially if they had initially planned for the child but unfortunately faced financial difficulty due to COVID-19. Considering the government spent millions on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme in August, we can see that support can be provided if the situation is deemed urgent enough by the government. By removing or being more flexible with the benefit cap policy, especially during times of economic hardship, women would be able to have more autonomy and support before they make their choices.
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