Wednesday, 8 February 2012

A response to the Can't Feed Don't Breed Brigade

On Monday the NZ Herald started a week-long series looking at the gap between rich and poor in Auckland.  On the first day they examined two families - one well-off and one struggling.  The first had two kids, 10 and 13, the second three children, all aged 3 and under.

The article was widely shared online by leftie progressive types I follow and I was startled by some of the responses, particularly on the issue of the struggling family including three children.

Comments such as these were made:
"Agree though that life is all about choices and looking at the big picture of deciding to have 3 kids (and another from a prior relationship) to support when not in a strong enough financial position points to perhaps the wrong choices being made along the way."
"I agree that an average worker should expect to be able to support a family on average pay, but three or more kids I think is pushing it. You shouldn't enter into a situation you can't afford to maintain, that's irresponsible in my view."
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 3 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 lists.   Why 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?

What also bugs me is how, like with so many issues that come up through a feminist prism, this is about pretending that you know more about someone else's life than they know about it themselves.  Second guessing the life choices of others is a game I'd rather not play.  There could be many reasons why people have 2< children (or indeed any children, one child, 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.

And what's are the assumptions made by those saying the equivalent of "you shouldn't breed more mouths than you can feed"?  
  • People's financial situations don't change over time - or at least they don't get worse.
  • Someone can totally foresee how much more each child will add to their outgoings.
  • Contraception is fool-proof and freely available and widely used and not socially, religiously or culturally discouraged for anyone.
  • Abortion for economic reasons is legal and accessible.
None of these is an accurate assumption.  Taken together they in fact look quite ludicrous, and the last one in particular I find quite chilling.  Those advocating for the termination of pregnancies which are going to put financial pressure on a parent, based on projected income, well, there's a name for that.  

And if you don't take it that far, if you merely encourage people who are on tight incomes to end pregnancies, then you are actually asking them to break to law, because, as we frequently discuss on this blog, an abortion for reasons other than the physical or mental health of the pregnant person is illegal in this country.  While personally I'll be working to change that law, it isn't likely that abortions on economic grounds will be allowable in the near future.

So if the "Can't Feed Don't Breed" brigade don't want to force poor people to have abortions, or even encourage them to break the law, then what's the next thing?  Use contraception?  Not 100% effective, so no guarantee of children resulting to impoverish their siblings and parents.  Oh wait I know, don't have consensual heterosexual sex!  At least not during the fertile years - so that's never for men and not until post-menopause for women.  This would certainly be good for that Homosexual Recruitment Drive we've all heard so much about.  

Let's not lose sight of the original point of discussion that the Herald article was about - the widening income disparity in Auckland.  How about we actually look at the real problem, rather than getting distracted.  The issue here 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.  The area I represent at Auckland Council, Puketapapa, 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.  I live here, in one of the poorer suburbs, and I work all over this part of town.  This gap is not about the choices of individuals, it is about a system that distributes wealth in a way that is all wrong.  We simply must lift incomes.  And we do that not by bagging people for having kids but by investing in education, in infrastructure, in social welfare, in job creation, in innovation, in pay equity and, in the public sector, in actual pay to public servants of all hues.  Focusing on procreation is a distraction, not a solution.


stargazer said...

thank you.

Tamara said...

Yes, a great post Julie.

Scuba Nurse said...

What a fantastic post, thanks so much

Psycho Milt said...

When I was growing up four kids was nothing unusual (my own family, my best friend's family and my wife's family, for instance) and being able to raise them on a single income also wasn't unusual. Of course, back then when you were raising four kids on a single income you didn't expect to have two cars and a house full of gadgets, but there's probably also something in here about what's happened to real wages over the last 30 years.

Lara said...

thank you, another great post

the only think I would disagree with is right at the end:

"We simply must lift incomes. And we do that not by bagging people for having kids but by investing in education, in infrastructure, in social welfare, in job creation, in innovation, in pay equity and, in the public sector, in actual pay to public servants of all hues"

I think that the reason for inequality, and the increase in inequality, is structural. It's how our economy works, but even more than that it's because of how money works. When you understand how money works you understand that there is a simple elegant solution, which has historical precedent over thousands of years. This could change the fabric of NZ society, but don't expect anyone in government to consider an alternative.

I've given talks at Occupy Auckland, outlining how money works and an alternative:

LudditeJourno said...

This is wonderful Julie, thank you.
I think there's another implicit "choice" thread operating here too - the idea that people who are poor choose not to work hard enough to be rich, or choose not to "educate themselves" well enough to get well-paid work.
One of the biggest invisibilisers of class, race, gender, able-bodied etc etc etc privilege possible - and a huge plank of capitalism - the idea we get what we deserve.
Back to my shockingly poorly paid but wonderful and life-enhancing job :-)

DPF:TLDR said...

As a counterpoint:

Both my parents came from large families, raised in the 1960s during the era of generous wages and single income earners. Both had fathers who worked full-time in upper-middle class jobs: my father's father was a foreman at a lumber yard and my mother's father was a joiner. My father had eight brothers and sisters, my mother had six.

Both of them had home lives that were extremely traumatic, frequently emotional and occasionally physically abusive. Both still harbour a lot of anger towards their (now deceased) parents. When I've asked them why they are angry with their parents and what they think they could have done better, one of the main things they suggested (aside from divorce) was having less kids. Both of their parents, even with the generous wages and financial support at the time, simply weren't able to handle, emotionally or logistically, having so many children. It left their households chaotic and unsupportive.

Both of my parents are still carrying a lot of pyschological damage from their own upbringing. So while I'm a long way from agreeing with Cactus Kate, I think there are times when it can be irresponsible to have large numbers of children.

Anonymous said...

Hugh, I think the point being made is that 3 children is not a large family.


Psycho Milt said...

It's effectively four, or more like 5 if you consider the child support payments will be intended to contribute to the caregiver's support too. Fathering children with multiple mothers is an expensive business unless you leave the country or put yourself on the dole.

Cactus Kate said...

I come from a family with three children which at the time was barely affordable, my cousin by last count has five which I consider far too many. But it is their choice. I am completely I'm favour of people having much larger families. If they can afford them.

You can afford a family in two ways. The first, a large income, most people realistically dont have this. The second is making do with what you have but with very tight budget constraints.

New Zealand has a history of the poorest groups having the most kids. You cannot expect to have loads of money left over each week if you have too many kids. That is the sacrifice you make.

In better considered posts people have considered they are "rich" in family because they have more kids. That is nice and i am pleased they feel this way. However just as the taxpayer won't give me a child if I don't have one to make myself "rich" in family, I simply can't see why the taxpayer has to subsidize their wealth in having a family they cannot financially afford.

Mikaere Curtis said...

The fundamental problem is that the right-wing revolution that started in the 1980s has resulted in income inequality to the extent that that many families find it very difficult to fund their basic needs.

Cactus Kate can witter on about personal choice as much as she wants, but the reality is that real personal choice has been curtailed by the attacks on real wages as a result of the '84 Labour government, followed by the ECA in 1991.

The current National government has an agenda of transferring wealth from ordinary Kiwis to the most wealthy. Look at the tax cuts, the asset sales. To whom do the most significant benefits flow ?

I recommend "The Spirit Level", it is well-researched book that examines the effects of income inequality, and what we can do. So far, I have yet to see a comparable set of research from the right-wingers, which leads me to conclude that right-wing ideology is a hazy thought experiment - yes, it can always be argued, but the reality is that it can not be substantiated.

This is the malaise of our times.

Lena said...

@Cactus Kate: "However just as the taxpayer won't give me a child if I don't have one to make myself "rich" in family..."

Did you forget about the taxpayer-funded IVF treatment available in New Zealand?

Verbscape said...

Kate, leaving aside issues of human compassion, one reason to "subsidise" families is to avoid greater costs down the line in terms of spending on crime, healthcare, etc. However, this post was not about "subsidising" families but about lifting incomes so that they *are* affordable - in which case they'd be able to get by without needing government assistance. Surely you are not against people earning more?

You also ignored a major argument of the post (aside from a snide comment that other posts were "better considered") - that children aren't always planned and that people's financial circumstances can change. I suppose people who have lost their jobs due to the recession or the Christchurch quakes should do the responsible thing and put their "extra" children up for adoption?

Mike said...

One thing I haven't noticed anyone mention yet is that the heralds sample of only two families in no way constitutes a majority. Nor can the two families they picked be compared properly. Two teenagers, while more costly to run, allow mum the freedom to provide a second income. While three under three leaves very little time for supplementary earnings.
we fit into the well off category, but will be struggling with just one income when baby number 1 makes it's appearance. It will take a lot of planning and saving and very little return on our tax dollars for us to survive the next 6 to 8 months.

Psycho Milt said...

Surely you are not against people earning more?

She is if they're working class. Her and DPF's attitude is that having spent decades doing the country a service by forcing down wages and working conditions, the right is now justifiably angry that losers on wages stubbornly continue to breed and therefore need taxpayer assistance to raise their kids.

Amy said...

I hate to say this, but while nobody having children would be obviously lead to societal collapse, there is a pretty strong environmental argument not to have many children. By almost any conceivable ecological standard there are way too many people in the world which means there is not enough space/resources left for any other species. Not that I think blaming people or cutting off child benefits is the best way to reduce the population. Probably one of the best ways is to try and increase income equality and reduce poverty so that women (and men) have more control over their reproductive choices.

DPF:TLDR said...

"By almost any conceivable ecological standard there are way too many people in the world which means there is not enough space/resources left for any other species"

That has more to do with the way resources are distributed and used than the number of people using them. To conclude that we have too many people in the world you need to believe that our current system of resource creation and distribution (capitalism) is ideal, or close to ideal. I don't think that's a very environmentalist position.

Moz said...

Hugh, with the resources available we can indeed make everyone poor, rather than a few rich with a great many very, very poor. What we can't do at the moment is make everyone rich (or in New Zealand terms middle class).

So the point amounts to a value judgement that having fewer people, but all living the way most people in New Zealand do, is better than having the current world population living in poverty.

Obviously there are people who value human life over all things, even to the point of actively working towards overpopulation and collapse (the Catholic Church, for example). But I suspect few to no environmentalists share that opinion.

Similarly, we have supporters of the current system who generally believe that it doesn't matter how poor the poor are as long as they are personally wealthy. Ideally very, very wealthy. Few environmentalists in that group either, but (IMO regrettably) some.

DPF:TLDR said...

I'd have to disagree with that, Moz. The world has enough resources to ensure that most people won't want for any of their needs. But such a high level of satisfaction of demand wouldn't allow a capitalist system to function, so it doesn't happen.

'Capitalism with less people' is actually a less drastic change than 'The same number of people, or even more, without capitalism'.

John Arthur Hastings said...

One point I think it is important to make is that the indignation in many cases (certainly not all of them) is not based so much on the fact that they had a "large" family, but rather that they had had a "large" family and expected others to pay for it.

As to whether this is a good argument, I'm still not sure, but it is considerably stronger than the argument most people here have been engaging with.

Du vale said...

Nice lot of twisting of what CK actually said....but then its the welfare loving left who salve their souls with others money and lives so who's surprised...?

The point of the matter is the oh so deserving poor have no right to breed at the expense of everyone else....all hand-wringing and tears of ansk aside.

If you are all so bothered then how about YOU reach into your OWN pockets and cough up some dosh to help out..?

I won't hold my breath waiting...

Andrensath said...

Du vale: we do. It's called paying tax. Which, it may surprise you to know, beneficiaries do as well; as most of us don't get enough to live on, let alone save, every single cent we get goes right back into the economy, and we sure as fuck don't get out of GST being passed on.

Moz said...

Du Vale the deserving poor have no right to breed at the expense of everyone else

You seem to be suggesting that it's only the deserving poor who lack this right. I think that no-one should have this right, but unfortunately almost everyone does (China being one exception).

The problem is that it's very hard to know whether you're going to become part of the deserving poor in advance. About the only people who know that are those who are already such and have no prospect of advancement, but even they are subject to successive governments redefining "deserving" in ever more restrictive ways.

Julie said...

Thanks for all the feedback. For the record I haven't read any other blog posts about this (no time) and was going off discussions I've seen on FB and heard in MSM.

From all I've read and heard over the years it seems the number one way to reduce the birth rate is to increase women's participation in education. And while this stat has increased significantly for some groups in our society I suspect it hasn't changed all that much for others at all. Would be interesting to find out.

I agree completely with all those who have pointed out that there is a structural problem with the way we put money at the centre of so many of our systems. They are supposed to work for us, isn't that what we make them for? Yet so often it's "you can't do it that way, it'll disturb The Market." Systems based around money are likely to revolve around the needs of those with money. Equality doesn't stand a chance in that set up.

As for coughing up for others - I do, we all do, so let's actually do it properly, get those who can to give a bit more, and lift all our children out of poverty. I'm quite happy to pay more tax personally, and have advocated that since I've been politically active. And yes I have at times been in the top tax bracket, so I'm not talking about putting up tax for Other People.

Shona said...

Thanks Julie you're a breath of fresh air. I am gobsmacked by the mean spirited attitude of the under 45's in NZ. Kids cost money to raise. Fact. Get over it.Yes there a lost skills of household management that could and should be available to learn thru the community education system . But what happened there? oh yeah the miserable ignorant right wing govt. we have took the funding away. The fact that benefit levels originally set by Ruth Richardson at below subsistence level over 20 years ago and haven't been raised to even keep pace with inflation over the last 20 years never gets any media discussion in the mainstream. I am disgusted by the nasty uncaring middle class Rogernomics has created. And the irony is they can't see how they're being screwed themselves.I am a well off baby boomer but I have always preferred the company of the struggling classes. Why? because I spent most of my young years as a struggler.And I know how it is to not have enough to live on.The skills I learnt then have been invaluable but I never had to deal with the overwhelming uncaring ignorance and conceit that is dished out to the poor these days. Back then people cared.

K said...

Great post Julie! Agree with everything you said and I only wish you could say it LOUDER (or just have key points in your argument repeated often :)

graham.h said...

My Mum had 5 Children from two marriages.we were lucky our step dad earned enough to cover our costs.we never had an extravagant lifestyle we lived within our means. none of us went to university as there was no extra money available for higher education. we got jobs as we left school. but could have done better if we had a degree...My brother has had 5 children from two marriages .they were a two income family until he lost his job. now they are heavily in debt on one income .struggling to cover food and basic bills because of the fact they put two children into private school Trying to Look Successful but Vanity is not helping /....graham.