Monday, 7 March 2011

If only those poor people would stop breeding

Cross posted

The Welfare Working Group was established by Cabinet:

... to undertake an expansive and fundamental review of New Zealand’s welfare system. The Group’s primary task was to identify how to reduce long-term welfare dependency.

In the midst of the Welfare Working Group's final report (downloadable from the Group's homepage), there is a nasty jibe about poor people breeding.

For some people the idea that it is not appropriate to have further children while receiving welfare is a significant change in expectation and will require a very different pattern of welfare use. ...We have found this issue difficult and have given careful consideration to our response. In the long term, the most positive measures to reduce the number of children born to parents relying on welfare payments is to provide more positive alternatives, especially for teen sole parents. The Working Group considers that a component of addressing this issue is providing all parents within the welfare system ready access to free long-acting reversible contraception. ... A majority of members of the Working Group are also in favour of strong signals to parents that a welfare payment is intended to provide temporary support while they get back on their feet and into employment. ... In practice, for most this means taking active steps to avoid pregnancy while receiving Jobseeker Support.

Welfare Working Group final report, p. 77

And if you do have the temerity to have another child while you are already on the benefit, then:

The Working Group suggests that if the changes to the work test requirements do not address the incentives to have additional children while receiving welfare assistance, then the Government may need to consider financial disincentives, say by withholding part or all of the extra payments that come with having an additional child.

Welfare Working Group final report, p. 78

By the way, that 'contraception" is going to be "long-acting reversible contraception" (p. 77, plus footnote 65 on p. 77).

In other words, if you are on the benefit, the government is going to control your fertility.

Wealthy white people have always had a problem with poor people breeding. Many years ago, I watched a documentary by Deepa Dhanraj, "The Legacy of Malthus", in which she argued that the (alleged) problem with the world's population is not the number of children being born, but the distribution of resources. The documentary contained a couple of video clips that revolted me. Two movie stars, both well-fed are white, both with no particular concerns about how to feed and clothe themselves and their children, appeared in commercials urging people to donate to the Population Institute. The Population Institute:

is an international non-profit that educates policymakers and the public about population, and seeks to promote universal access to family planning information, education, and services. Through voluntary family planning, we strive to achieve a world population in balance with a healthy global environment and resource base.

The donations were to enable the Population Institute to provide contraceptives to women in third world countries. A fine and noble purpose, on the surface, perhaps. But the subtext that I heard, loud and clear, was that wealthy white people who were already consuming far more than their share of the world's resources, wanted all those poor brown people to stop breeding. The world would be a much better place for everyone, that is, for the wealthy white people, if poor brown people would stop causing all the problems.

And I am revolted by the wealthly, well-educated, well-resourced people who wrote the Welfare Working Group's final report suggesting that all would be well in this country if only the poor people stopped breeding.

It turns out that the key to decreasing the size of the world's population is not forcing people to use contraceptives, or to have just one child, but to educate and empower women. Ensure that women are educated, ensure that they have the resources and capability to build lives for themselves, and can sustain themselves and their children, and in time, the population will drop. The process is so well known that we have a name for it: "demographic transition."

Educating women is the critical factor in reducing the birth rate. Providing contraceptives turns out to be neither here nor there:

While the bomb has been largely defused, the implication remains that to bring growth down more rapidly we should do the only thing we can do now: fund and promote family planning programs among fast-growing populations. The rest is pie in the sky.

Our response is twofold. First, demographers will tell you that even if average family size in a fast-growing society were cut by half tomorrow, its population would not stop growing until well into the next century. So every solution, including family planning programs, is a long-term one; there are no quick fixes. The second part of our answer is more surprising: simply providing birth control technology through family planning programs doesn't affect population growth all that much.

Individual women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit are not the same as populations. There is no 'demographic transition' for an individual. But 'demographic transition' does provide some clues. The key is to empower women, to ensure that they have the resources the need to obtain and retain a job. That means investing in education and training and childcare. It means pouring far more resources into schools for teenage parents, where young mothers can be sure that their children are being cared for while they finish their secondary education. It means enabling sole parents to access training grants, such as the grant that our Minister of Social Development used herself when she was a sole parent on the DPB. It means truly focusing on giving sole parents a helping hand. And that will be a complex and expensive solution.

Or we could just put all sole parents on the pill. Cheap, simple, and with that nice overtone of punishment.

And there's a final sting in the tail. I know of no 'long-acting, reversible contraception' for men. The Welfare Working Group is making women into gatekeepers of the nation's domestic purposes benefit bill. Except that last time I enquired into the matter, except in very unusual circumstances, it still took two people to make a baby. Why is is only women who are required to take responsibility for keeping the cost of the domestic purposes benefit down?


Trouble said...

Or we could just put all sole parents on the pill. Cheap, simple, and with that nice overtone of punishment.

No, not the pill. The dogwhistle behind "long-acting" is that you can't trust beneficiaries to take pills every day. Long-acting means Jadelle or Depo or an IUD. They're the contraceptive of choice when you're choosing it for Other People.

Sandra - too heavy to stand on a soapbox, but undeterred said...

Excellent post Deborah. So very redolent of the attacks on women on welfare over 100 years ago in New Zealand. There was almost no welfare then compared to now but the same ideas were being trotted out. I especially applaud your comment at the end about women as the gatekeepers of welfare bill. Nowhere ever do we see calls for long term restrictions on male fertility. Which prompts me to wonder whether:
1. The medical profession prefers not to experiment on male bodies
2. To bring this topic up would lead to the topic of rape which most people prefer to maintain a silence on
3. Only certain kinds of men can be expected to take care with where their sperm goes and by definition of becoming pregnant without long term male financial support, solo mothers are not deserving of such basic courtesy from their partners

Anonymous said...


- Mr.F

Psycho Milt said...

I agree to some extent. The WWG should be looking at the other half of the babymaking process. Right now, Dumbass who can't keep it in his pants and won't take responsibility for the consequences has a pretty easy time of it - there's fertile ground for reform there.

That said:

1. However you try and spin it, the govt providing ready access to free contraception isn't the same thing as the govt controlling your fertility, or even vaguely close to it, so don't bother.

2. The WWG is actually on safe ground with this stuff, because most of us have to think carefully about how we're going to cover the costs of raising a(nother) child, and don't have a whole lot of patience with people who litter the country with unwanted children at the taxpayers' expense. That makes for a rich vein of disgruntled voters for the govt to mine.

3. ...the (alleged) problem with the world's population is not the number of children being born, but the distribution of resources.

If you think the effects on the planet of 8 billion people living on it are only an alleged problem, wait until those 8 billion have spent a few decades popping out sprogs because children are a blessing from God, and we've got 11 billion. There'll be a "distribution of resources" problem then alright.

It isn't about rich vs poor, it's about what's sustainable. In western Europe, sustaining 200 people per sq km is no problem - in a country where subsistence farming is how a lot of people make a living, not so much.

3. The key is to empower women, to ensure that they have the resources the need to obtain and retain a job. That means investing in education and training and childcare.

If I recall correctly, the WWG says pretty much the same thing. It's the bit the govt is most likely to ignore out of the whole report, but that isn't the Group's fault.

Hugh said...

It isn't about rich vs poor, it's about what's sustainable. In western Europe, sustaining 200 people per sq km is no problem - in a country where subsistence farming is how a lot of people make a living, not so much.

And what is the difference between Europe and such a country if not the difference between wealth and poverty? It's not like the reason so many people are subsistence farmers in Burkina Faso is something to do with the soil quality or the weather.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Psycho Milt said...

Perhaps a better way of putting it would be that it's not about Whitey nicking all the resources - Burkina Faso has plenty of resources, but if the main way of making a living in your country is subsistence farming, having the majority of your population under 30 isn't going to end well for you.

Along the same lines: if countries in western Europe had 200 people per square kilometer and were considering children a blessing from God, things wouldn't be looking too good for them either. The reason for promoting contraception in the Third World isn't because Whitey hates poor people, it's because that's where the high birth rates are.

Rosie said...

Very interesting!
I previously thought the correlation between birth rates and education was related to when you finished education – i.e. if you finished at 16, you were ready for children younger and could have more kids than if you finished at 25. It’s interesting to have this perspective as it makes me appreciate that, perhaps, it’s because you don’t have the educational opportunities.
This seems to be compounded by the reference to evidence that the only way to lower birth rates is to increase education (and also the comment Psycho Milt made that it was also the Working Group’s suggestion too!).
What I wonder, though, is whether this is really something governments can achieve? Having worked in a number of government departments in NZ and seen how incredibly inefficient and ineffective they are, I would never think the government is going to offer a helpful solution to a serious social problem.
I remember reading a book called “The Tipping Point” which talks about how, most things proceed in a non-linear fashion i.e. that there is no linear relationship between the number of professionals in a community and its social issues. However, once the number of professionals drops below a certain level (around 5 %) rates all sorts of social problems (and it mentions teenage pregnancy and dropping out of school) suddenly shoot up. I mentioned this to someone who said this was because the schools couldn’t get governors, but I don’t think that’s all that’s involved.
Today, I went to help out at a local school with the writing. There was quite a variety of ability. One boy clearly was not coping at all. He couldn’t write at all and was trying to pretend he could which was both sad and worrying in terms of his future. He has a special needs teacher who comes into help him once a week for half an hour which is inadequate. I talked through some options with the teacher and told her what I observed (him copying his neighbour) and suggested some alternative things we could do.
I didn’t think I was a very good helper as, well, I can’t spell (I had to ask the teacher how to spell swimming). However the teacher phoned me up later (for a different reason) and I said that I thought I wouldn’t come in again, although I could see the value of it and thought other parents should. She kept saying that she wanted me to come in again and what I’ve just realised is that it’s things like this that help kids who are struggling academically and this is why, when the % of professionals falls below 5% everything goes starts to collapse because there aren’t enough people with education to focus on helping others.
In this picture it’s educated people giving their time for free who are able to help.
Being able to read is the key to so much knowledge and so fundamental to self-education post school. I had a friend in CHB who dropped out of school at 13, had her son at 19 and had the reading ability of the average 8 year old. As she’d left school with such poor reading skills, her options for self-education were limited. I suspect the real reason for her dropping out was that she was floundering academically. And I suspect the real reason for her pregnancy was a need to give meaning to hear life when her ability to direct it has been severely impacted by her educational short-falling.
This makes me come back to the helping out at school and the phase:
From each, according to their ability, to each, according to their need.
The only way we are going to improve people’s educational outcomes is if we all do what we can to help young learners – all schools welcome free help with open arms – and that’s something everyone reading this post can do.