The British poverty trap

Francis Fish
5 min readSep 16, 2023

A tale of two caps

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There is a push to remove the two child benefit cap because it could lift a lot of children out of poverty. Except it may well not.

I don’t have the time or the expertise to go into this in any great detail, but I will outline how it works.

The war on the vulnerable — cap 1

Way back in the distant mists of time (2013) there was a made up panic around how some people on benefits may receive more money than a family on average income. We (whoever that is) should not pay for them (the people we just decided to pretend to be our enemies). This meant that the coalition government introduced a regulation that put an upper limit on the amount of benefits a household could receive based on the average income (in 2013). The amount was reduced in 2016.

This was dressed up by Iain Duncan-Smith (a figure well loved by no decent person) as a way to force people into work, because if you could show you were working the cap did not apply to you. He was gleeful after various court rulings upheld the law, even though one of the judges said it was probably in breach of the UN human rights charter. The public (whoever they are) supported the measures — probably because they had no idea what misery it meant in practice. This is one of the problems with political cant, often the headline (say reducing dependency or some addled version of fairness) hides a much darker intent, in this case saving a few pennies and terrorising people who can’t fight back while feeding your constituency’s need to hate someone less fortunate than they are. Duncan Smith’s legacy is starving children.

Quoting from the Wikipedia article on the cap:

Statistics published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) indicated that by 2018, 70% of the households that had been subject to the cap were no longer subject to it, amounting to 54,000 households. In that year independent research was published examining 10,000 benefit-capped households. It estimated that the policy had increased the likelihood of moving into work by 21%. However, only 37% of those no longer subject to the cap had become so due to a higher income. For every child