Friday, May 20, 2011

Children: a lifestyle choice?

"Don't have children you can't afford."

Well, it's a bit bloody late after the kid has been born, isn't it?


"Don't have children you can't afford."

Let's start at the very beginning: people have children! We're a species that reproduces! That's how the species survives!

(Things I'm not addressing: whether the world is overpopulated. Whether people in rich countries have some kind of moral duty to not have children to make up for the exponential population growth in poorer countries. Immigration vs population growth through birth. Racism.)

Adults have children. Not all adults, obviously, but lots of us. Some of us do it because we really want children! Or we really want to be mums! Or we feel social pressure! Or it just happens! The contraception fails, and the pregnant woman doesn't want to have an abortion!

Some people will engage in a lot of pragmatic decision-making before they become pregnant or knock up their partner or whatever, and they'll have thought about things like "how are we going to fund this screaming poo factory?" and "will I go insane through lack of sleep?" and "is now really the right time?" Other people will not engage in those decisions—they'll certainly make a number of other decisions, though, like "where will baby sleep?" and "oooh, tiny red shoes or tiny green ones?" Some won't be making any sort of decision to get pregnant at all, but will still be happy when they find out they are.

But none of this is the point: the point is that people have children.


"Don't have children that you can't afford."

Most people will never be in a position to afford private school and horse-riding lessons. That's a reality of the New Zealand economy.

Leaving arguments about whether that's a good thing aside for the moment, there are serious questions to be discussed about what sort of lifestyle a New Zealand citizen should be able to enjoy as a minimum if they so desire.*

I'd place this minimum somewhere like:
- comfortable accommodation that doesn't have major structural issues and can be heated reasonably** cheaply
- reliable access to food of the kind the individuals can and like to eat
- ability to access (some) leisure activities
- ability to travel (at least around the country)
- ability to access education and healthcare
- some other stuff, like clothes

So what all parents should be able to provide for their children, at a minimum is a roof over their heads and food and clothing and some opportunity to do fun things and some opportunity to see the country.

If there are parents in New Zealand who can't do that, I'd argue that we're failing as a society.


"Don't have children that you can't afford."

It's time for a bit of a chat about Bad Financial Decisions. We all make them sometimes (well, at least everyone I know has made them sometimes). For instance, just last week I spent $90 at the pub at a friend's birthday party I'd had no real intention of drinking at! I reasonably regularly blow all my spending money for the fortnight on new shoes/clothes/bits of computer hardware!

I'm still: paying my rent and bills and buying breakfast and lunch most days and paying off my student loan and paying off my bank loan and saving up (very slowly) for a house deposit and—basically I am not living on Struggle Street. This is mainly because I am 26 and single and don't have dependants and I earn above the median national salary (for a person in full-time employment)!

There are people—lots of people—in this country who earn what I earn and support a family on it. The Bad Financial Decisions they are therefore able to make without their budget cascading into the shitter are smaller, because they have higher unavoidable expenses.

And, right, the size of the Bad Financial Decisions you can make without it ruining your budget gets smaller the poorer you are, so that a (very) wealthy person can invest $30K in a dodgy finance company and lose the lot without it bankrupting them, whereas a poorer person might have to legit decide whether rice or potatos are a more economical choice this week.

And everyone's going to stuff up sometimes. You're going to have weeks where you're like, FML, I just want to get drunk on the couch, so you buy a bottle of tequila and wake up the next morning smelling of alcohol and regret. You're going to spend more than you really should on shoes, or buy the slightly more expensive (but much nicer) loaf of bread, or whatever.

Statements like "people just need to budget better" a) place an unreasonably high expectation on people, and b) ignore reality. The reality is both that it can be extraordinarily challenging to survive on a low income (and people are, by doing so, regularly making very good budgeting decisions) and that people are people and human and make mistakes.


"Don't have children that you can't afford."

More than just individual Bad Financial Decisions, sometimes stuff goes wrong in people's lives: they get sick, or lose their job, or interest rates go up so their mortgage payment is higher than they budgeted for, or inflation is high, or we're in the middle of a global recession, or their relationship breaks down—

Sometimes those people have children!

Nobody deserves to become sick; very few people deserve to lose their jobs; interest rates and inflation and global financial crises are largely out of the control of Average Citizen Nancy; and relationship breakdowns are by definition the fault of the parties involved but, you know, shit happens.

Even the most careful budgeter in the world won’t think of everything that could possibly go wrong in their lives; none of us can predict the future.


“Don’t have children that you can’t afford.”

Uh, yeah, but they’re here now. What are you proposing we do instead?

We’re ostensibly a civilised society.

Back in the day, unwanted children used to get left on hillsides or hit over the head with a rock; ritualised and common infanticide is found all over the world in ancient civilisations.

But we grew up as a species and produced surpluses and villages and towns and cities and city-states and nations and the UN; and now we have all these laws against leaving your children on hillsides or hitting them over the head with a rock. And it’s a good thing, too.

The effect of it is that people who produce children are expected to care for them, and if they don’t (or if they do, but they’re really crap at it), we take the kids from them and stick the parents in jail if it’s bad enough and shame everyone involved a lot.

At the same time, though, it’s not like there’s a drop-off centre where you can turn up with little Timmy, all “I’ve had him for a couple of years and he’s too expensive and ugh I really hate this parent lark, take him away.” I suspect, based totally on my own brain and not on any research or internet-based anecdotal evidence that any drop-off in levels of adoption in Western nations is connected to the availability of contraception and abortion, and also possibly to the ability of solo mothers to receive State support. But that’s an untested assumption! I also suspect that anyone who rocked up to Child, Youth and Family all “I’ve had enough of Little Timmy, take him away!” would a) not receive that much assistance, and b) be shamed for trying it.

So you’ve had a kid: you’re stuck with him or her (unless you’re going to be sufficiently abusive so as to have the kid forcibly removed from your household and/or be sent to jail, which I think we can all agree is not the sort of thing we want people to do ever.)

The moral of this section is: if society is going to require individuals to do something, and some of those individuals are going to have difficult doing that thing, society is obligated to help them.

To link all this together:

1. People have children!

2. Sometimes people with children face expenses they can’t reasonably anticipate.

3. Sometimes people’s income is inadequate for their needs.

4. Society expects people to care for their children, and makes it difficult to get rid of children (not that many people actually want to, I expect).

5. Points 1 to 4 mean together that society has some sort of obligation to make sure that people with children are able to maintain a reasonable lifestyle.


“Don’t have children that you can’t afford.”

Complaints about the cost of living in New Zealand come, obviously, from people’s dissatisfaction with the cost of living in New Zealand. I don’t think a blanket reply of “well you shouldn’t have gotten knocked up then, should you?” is a very reasonable response to this.

I also think that if a large proportion of families in New Zealand genuinely feel as though they’re unable to easily maintain the lifestyles they want, we should be talking about that. We should be talking about what a reasonable lifestyle actually is: do we expect people to be able to pack the kids in the car and go to the beach for a holiday a couple of times a year? And—and we should also be having a conversation about whether people’s lifestyle desires are reasonably attainable. Like I said earlier, most people are never going to be able to send their kids to private school or give them horse-riding lessons, and maybe that’s okay.

But, uh, I think it’s totally reasonable for a family who earns the median wage (and I am here talking about a household with one working adult) to expect to be able to have a comfortable house and enough to eat and to be able to pay the bills and buy a few luxuries, and if that’s systemically unrealistic then I think we’ve got a bit of a problem.


“Don’t have children that you can’t afford.”

Levelled, right, at single women who have children and who get their income from the state.

There’s, I don’t know, hundreds of years of history here about the purpose of marriage and the operation of wider family networks; about the Poor Laws of Elizabethan England (and similar laws worldwide); about the status of women in law (not good; let’s just take that as read); about the rise of the nuclear family and industrialisation and the effect that had on those wider family and community networks by virtue of requiring highly mobile labour; and about how we fixed some of what capitalism broke by introducing social welfare.

But for the purpose of this exercise:

1. Children are good; and
2. Parenthood is work; and
3. Children, while good, are expensive because they’re not productive and they need a lot of care.***

Parenthood is not paid work! That doesn’t make it not work! See also housework, and also the bit above about the societal obligation to do certain things.

Women who have children and who get their income from the state are doing work in raising the next generation. This is work that we should support. Do I think that living on the DPB gives people an enviable lifestyle which I would like to emulate? No. This is why accusations of teenage girls getting deliberately pregnant so they can live off the state for the rest of their lives (and so on) always makes me think that their lives must be utter shit if they possibly think that a total annual income somewhere around $24K with which they must support a child sounds like a good deal.

And even if they have gotten deliberately pregnant: uh, children are still good! Parenthood is still work!


“Don’t have children that you can’t afford.”

Levelled at those poor people, who should clearly have got a better job before they started breeding.

I’m not going to lie, this sounds like eugenics. It also sounds like total bollocks.

The median wage/salary for those in full-time employment was, at July 2010 (according to Statistics New Zealand) $44,800. Full-time employment at minimum wage will get you $28,080 a year. There’s a lot more women in part-time employment than men, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment.

My statistical skills are a bit shite, but here goes: the median wage/salary figure is a lot higher than the median income from all sources (the latter gets skewed down by people who work part time or receive benefits).

But even assuming that only people who work full-time or who have a partner who works full-time should be able to have children, there’s still going to be an awful lot of households who have an income between $30K and $50K. The median household income from all sources (including benefits (including Working for Families)) was $64,272 per year as at June 2010. Half the households in the country have a combined income of less than that.

So is $64,272 per year enough to support a family on? What sort of lifestyle will it give? Is that lifestyle a reasonable one? What if the family is earning $44,272 per year – is that enough? Or $22,272? Remember the bit above about parenthood being work, and children being good.

Also think a little about whether you really believe that an adult’s right to choose to have a child should be in any way connected to the size of their bank balance, and then think: if this somehow became official policy, would you be in a position to determine what the magic figure was? And would you be over it?

* I'm totally down with people living off the grid if that's what they want, but I'd place a minimum standard somewhat higher.

** A note about how I use "reasonable": I'm a law student (and it's ruining my life AND my mind) so I tend to think of "reasonable" as meaning "what an ordinary person would think apt and fair in the circumstances". The effect of this is that it isn't a strict standard; to use the heating example, "reasonable" would be tied in to the person's income and the size of their dwelling.

*** I welcome any suggestions of reform of child labour laws. Seriously, drop that in any time you like.

Monday, May 9, 2011

this turned out rather angrier than i expected

I do not understand what the problem with lifestyle beneficiaries is.

I will define "lifestyle beneficiary" for the purposes of this post as a person who, for whatever reason, chooses not to seek paid employment in such a way as to cover all of his or her expenses, who does not have any personal relationships such as their expenses are paid for by an individual (or a group of individuals) and who therefore relies on the state for an income. The term obviously usually has negative connotations, but that's what I'm going to talk about. I'm not intending to import them as subtext to this post.

I don't know if there are any good stats to suggest what proportion of beneficiaries are lifestyle beneficiaries. I'd expect it to be small, mostly because the stats I have seen seem to suggest that most people move off the DPB and the dole fairly quickly, and invalid's benefit is of course a different matter.

Anyway, I really don't see the problem.

The government of New Zealand used to explicitly follow policy aimed at full employment. This was, up until the 1980s, a fairly bipartisan thing (as I understand it), and is presumably one of the things behind Think Big and all the other grand infrastructure works of the 60s and 70s. In the 1980s, things changed, and there's been for the last 30 years a fairly bipartisan approach of laisse fair economics.

Talk all you want about whether that was a good thing or not; I think it is genuinely up for debate, at least in some areas.

One of the inexonerable consequences of moving away from state intervention to create and sustain full employment into a situation where you let the market rise and fall as it wishes is that you will end up with people who are structurally un- or under-employed. This isn't, as far as I am concerned, up for debate (and if you are a right-wing economist, you'll probably argue that it isn't a bad thing. That's genuinely up for debate too).

The structural unemployment comes from the fact that sometimes the market will have a few less jobs than people, and sometimes the market will provide a lot less jobs than people. But there are incentives to always having fewer jobs than people: it keeps wages lower, it makes the market more flexible, and blah blah blah classical economics 101.

[Someday I will talk about why I think this is so utterly shit, but today is not that day. Today is about pragmatism.]

So you now have some people who, try as they might, are not going to get or keep a job that pays their expenses. This is a problem: having homeless people dying on the streets is pretty unpleasant plus it turns out that they are people too and not some alien species who don't warrant basic human decency or care!

As a sop to these radical notions of "not being total douches" and "caring about your fellow humankind", the state provides a minimum level of income at a level designed to prevent your unemployed people from dying unpleasantly on the streets. This is not generally a level which will allow them to go on extended trips to Europe, and maybe not even to the other end of whatever island they're on, but they're probably fed and housed and reasonably comfortable. Success!

But! It turns out that not having employment makes most people feel demoralised and shit, which gets compounded by unemployed people living on state funds being told constantly that they're bludging scum who don't deserve nice things. And if they're women: that they should keep their legs closed and not have kids they couldn't afford! Because everyone who doesn't plan and budget for their relationship breaking down has failed as a human being!

Nevertheless, some people who are structurally long-term unemployed manage to find other things to do with their time (whatever those things are), such as they're no longer that motivated to spend 40 hours a week in an environment they probably don't like that much all for a (few? lot?) more dollars in their pocket.

What the fuck is wrong with that?

If you're accepting of the basic bipartisan premise of NZ economic management: that there will be unemployed people; and especially if you're defending that policy on the grounds that it provides market incentives that you agree with --- if you're doing that, where's your problem with people who take themselves out of the market entirely, thus leaving jobs for people who DO want them? And who do so for what they get on the dole, which is effectively 4/5ths of fuck all?

Why do you want some people to be unhappy all the time?