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It was one of the Tories’ most controversial cuts: Waging war on the UK’s ‘benefit culture’ by limiting social security payments that supposedly enabled ‘welfare crooks’ to have large families that they could hardly afford.

The two-child policy – which limits benefit payments to the first two children born in the poorest households – would, according to its proponents, reduce the welfare bill and bring ‘unable’ parents into line by teaching them – as one minister put it – “the reality that children cost money.

New research, however, indicates that the behavior change aspect of the policy has failed miserably. Since its introduction exactly five years ago today, the fertility rate for third and subsequent children born to poorer families has barely dropped. Instead, the main impact of the policy has been to become the main driver of child poverty.

“In the absence of a behavioral fertility response to the policy, the main function of the two-child limit is to deprive families living on low incomes of around £3,000 a year. This will inevitably lead to a dramatic increase in child poverty in large families,” said study co-author Professor Jonathan Portes.

Analysis of birth records and household survey data for the study, commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation, found that the introduction of the policy in 2017 resulted in a drop in births of the third child by just 5 600 per year, or less than 1% of the total annual births in England. and Wales.

The study asks why the policy has had so little impact on behavior. Unpublished research suggests more than half of families were unaware of the policy before they were affected. Many large families – Orthodox Jewish and Muslim families are disproportionately affected – may ignore it for religious reasons.

The research comes as new estimates suggest that 1.4 million children in more than 400,000 families in the UK are affected by the two-child policy. April’s below-inflation benefit increase means affected families with three children face a shortfall of £983 a month, with larger families facing an even bigger hole in their income.

Sara Ogilvie of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), who produced the estimates, said: “The two-child limit is a brutal policy that punishes children just for having siblings. This forces families to survive on less than they need, and with the cost of living soaring, the hardship and hunger these families face will only intensify.

More than 50% of children in families with more than two children will be in poverty by 2027, according to the CPAG. Removing the policy would immediately lift 250,000 children out of poverty. Despite ministers’ ‘irresponsible claimants’ rhetoric, official figures show that more than half of affected families are working.

The two-child policy was dreamed up by former Chancellor George Osborne, who announced it in 2015 amid right-wing media hysteria around large families – the “benefit offspring” claimed to have children primarily for exploit what was considered a plus. -generous social protection system.

He immediately ran into trouble after critics pointed out that women who gave birth to a third or more child as a result of rape would be penalized under the policy. Exemptions were introduced for this and for cases of multiple births, or where families had adopted children or had parental care arrangements.

There is evidence that the two-child policy was a key factor in many women’s decision to have an abortion. Research has suggested this has had a devastating impact on family life even before the current cost of living crisis, as households were forced to cut spending on food and heating.

It was recently trashed by former Tory welfare reform minister Lord Freud, who called it ‘vicious’ and ‘a growth’ and said it should be scrapped. He claimed the policy was forced on a reluctant Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) by the Treasury as the price for introducing Universal Credit.

A DWP spokesperson said: ‘Universal Credit allows people to support themselves and their families while developing financial independence through work, and the latest figures show there were 200,000 children less in absolute poverty after housing costs compared to 2019/20.

“This policy means that families on benefits are asked to make the same financial decisions as families who live on their own, including taking into account our comprehensive childcare package for working parents and benefits family homes for all children.

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