Monday 15 February 2016

The problem is low pay, not family size

In recent public debate about child poverty blame has been laid once again on parents having too many children.  Correspondents and opinion piece writers have stated or implied that more than two children is too many.  When did we decide that having three kids constitutes a large family? 

In the whole of human history there has been a massive period of time with average family sizes of more than three children born to one couple.  In many countries in the world now women are likely to have more than two children over the course of their fertile years, indeed the world average fertility rate is a bit over 2.5 on all three measures Wikipedia uses.  is it unreasonable to expect to be able to have three children and be able to get by in Aotearoa New Zealand, a comparatively well-off place to live?

Those who blame family size for child poverty have been rebutted on the statistics already by such as the Child Poverty Action Group, who have as their mandate research and advocacy to reduce child poverty and would I have no doubt promote reductions in family sizes if that really were a key driver. 

What the family size argument seems to boil down to is pretending that you know more about someone else’s life than they know about it themselves.  Second guessing the life choices of others is an impossible game, even with the benefit of hindsight.

There could be many reasons why people have more than two children (or indeed any children, one child, or no children).  Maybe there was a contraceptive failure, or cultural pressure to have a big family, or a desire to have children of different sexes, or they had the financial resources at the time of conception, or any range of other reasons that are theirs and not yours or mine.

By stating bluntly “if you can’t feed then don’t breed” a series of unhelpful assumptions are made, including that people’s financial situations don’t change over time, or at least don’t get worse.  In an age of uncertainty around employment, the future of work, rapidly changing technology and industries, this seems a naïve assumption to make. In decades gone by how many people, young women in particular, took typing at school before we saw the rise of the personal computer and the demise of the typing pool? 

It is equally impossible for a couple or an individual to accurately foresee how much each child will add to their outgoings.  Will this child have additional health needs, a disability, or be one of twins?  Will we have to move to different housing because of particular needs this child has, housing that is more expensive and creates more transport expenses too? 

Finally not all children are planned at the point of conception.  Contraception does fail, and is not easily available and socially acceptable to all.  In New Zealand Abortions are legally allowed only for medical risk to the physical or mental health of the pregnant person, not for economic reasons.   Those advocating for the termination of pregnancies which are going to put financial pressure on a parent, based on projected income, should think carefully, not least because an abortion on such grounds would be against the current law.

The key driver of child poverty is not too many children but too little money; low incomes, whether it be from paid employment or social welfare or a combination of both.

It's not that long ago that most people in this country could expect a reasonable standard of living for their family based on the income of one full time worker, even with three or more children in the household.  In 2012 the Herald published statistics on median income levels across Auckland.  The area I live in and represent, Puketapapa (Mt Roskill), had the 18th lowest median income in the Herald's stats, despite having a lower percentage of people on benefits (10.5%) than many of the suburbs higher up.   This gap is not about the choices of individuals, it is about a system that distributes wealth in a way that is wrong.  We simply must lift incomes.  We do that by investing in education, in infrastructure, in social welfare, in job creation, in innovation, in pay equity and, crucially, paying at least a living wage.  Focusing on procreation is a distraction, not a solution.

NB:  This post is a rewrite and update of an earlier one I wrote about four years ago on the same topic.  I submitted it to the Herald but they declined to publish it.  Special thanks to Deborah Russell for editing.