Friday, December 15, 2006

Children and choice

By Chip -- Last week the website flagged an article and discussion in the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper about their "Motherhood Manifesto," which argues for, among other things, quality childcare, universal health insurance for children, and other public policies to support children and their parents.

The article attracted an interesting discussion at the paper's website, including criticisms of the notion that society should provide anything to parents and children. The argument was that having kids is a choice: "Why should I have to pay for your choice?"

The most common response, including the main response from, was a kind of utilitarian logic, that kids are the future of our society, and these policies are "an investment" in the future:
Some Seattle PI readers are calling policies like healthcare for all kids, access to childcare, and paid family leave, "More special rights just for making a CHOICE...." The "choice" being to have children. This type of thinking glosses over an essential fact that children are an investment every society must make; otherwise there won't be a future at all for that society (we'd go extinct!).
But I don't think we should have to justify societal support for children by focusing on their future benefits to individuals or to society as a whole, because doing so opens up a bunch of questions along these lines: are those kids who are destined to go on to be more "productive" more worthy of support than others?

This kind of utilitarian calculation is a slippery slope, and ignores a much more basic and fundamental reason to support kids and their parents.

For me the more compelling argument is that children are human beings who did not themselves choose to come into this world. If we are a society that claims to be civilized, we owe these helpless humans some basic things.

We as a society don't say that disabled adults who are unable to contribute to the economy should just fend for themselves, and that if their families are unable or unwilling to do so, that's just tough luck.

So when it comes to children, I think the most convincing argument is just this: not that they are future economic producers, or that they are "the future of society," but that they are human beings, regardless of what their parents did or did not do, who their parents are, how "irresponsible" they are, which choices they made or did not make. These kids are not themselves responsible for their situation.

That's the most important reason to provide universal health care, quality day care, decent public education, and other "benefits" -- or rather, minimum basic standards -- to all children. That's why these things, far from being "benefits," should actually be seen as basic rights.

Looked at through this lense, those who are whining about "having to support other peoples' kids" should consider that this is about basic standards of decency: how a society treats its most vulnerable.

But even granted this, why should parents, people who "choose" to have children, get "benefits"?

Our society has decided that families are the main support group for children. Part of the way we assure these basic standards for children is therefore by providing support not just directly to the children, but to their families as well.

Through this lense, the question then becomes, what is the best way for us as a society to ensure basic standards of decency to all children? And part of the answer is to provide resources and support to their families.

I think that few people would whine and complain about the fact that parents of severely disabled adults are the beneficiaries of government programs to help them care for their adult child.

So I see it as a very sad commentary on the state of human decency in this country that anyone would be so grudging about providing minimum standards of decency to the most helpless members of our society, our children.

On Edit 12/20: A similar discussion is going on in reaction to two blog posts by Joan Blades of over at the Huffington Post: Should Societies Support Mothers Raising Children, and Indiscriminate Breeders!?!.

Cross-posted at Daddychip2


Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more with the sum-up last paragraph of your post. I'd also add that I believe anyone who doesn't want to "pay for other people's kids" is really also more likely to, in fact, not want to do the same for the developmentally disabled. But, in truth, the very attitude that turns taxpaying into consuming shows not only how emotionally immature many of us are, or how civically uneducated even larger numbers of us are, but also just how plain ignorant we are.

Government is not a "pay for service" arrangement, and most people's taxes and other contributions to government are so comingled and abstracted that an individual truly has no idea "what they're paying for." Indeed, if people actually knew where taxes went, they wouldn't be steamed about forking over a few dollars a year to help America's kids. I mean, at least 89% of all activity in every single court in America involves legal activity between two businesses, but we're all paying for that. Is that value-for-money?

At any rate, so many of us will end up with children--and most, if not all of us, were children ourselves--that the concerns from the childless about all the extra stuff they have to pay for because others have kids is politically nowhere. I think there's far more traction asking why we subsidize water for big agriculture, or, here in California, why Prop 13 keeps PG&E's property tax assessments at 1960s levels. THAT's what people should be upset about.

But as the so-called "mommy wars" show, they are plenty of big interests who benefit from these divide-and-conquer squabbles.

Chip said...

Great points, Justin, thanks. It is amazing how hostile some people are to the kinds of policies that has in their Motherhood Manifesto. In fact, they're all the kinds of things that every other developed country already has in place, yet in the US there's some kind of resistance among many people to this basic level of societal decency.

And yeah, if the media is focusing on "mommy wars" and "special benefits" for parents, who's going to notice the massive subsidies to wealthy private corporations?

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic insight! I have sort of begrudgingly accepted that having a family is somehow special or justified because my kids are the future society .. I mean it all made logical sense but didn't really sit right, that somehow I'm special because I [chose to!] raise kids.

But viewing kids in the context of kids simply being humans and being among the more vulnerable of those humans really feels right. It really isn't that families deserve special treatment so much as kids - that as vulnerable humans they need support to live, and we as parents and caregivers are that support.

Granny said...

"I think that few people would whine and complain about the fact that parents of severely disabled adults are the beneficiaries of government programs to help them care for their adult child."

Yes, they do as a matter of fact.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this. I have also been irritiated and frustrated not only by this question but also by most of the responses I've come up with. Basic human rights of children is so obvious and yet, i hadn't thought of it in that way before.