Children invisible in theory and practice
28/02/2012 § 3 Comments
First, an aside. Am I the only one who saw the irony in yesterday’s announcement of the welfare reforms? The PM, raised by a solo mum in a state house, and the Minister of Social Development, former solo mum and beneficiary, announced cuts to programmes for solo mums and their children. This quote was particularly delicious:
“Despite the good intentions of the welfare system, it’s now creating a cycle of dependence and is actually out of step with today’s needs,” says Ms Bennett.
The problem is isolated to ‘now’ and ‘today’s needs’, which are presented as different from the needs when Ms Bennett herself (and Mr Key before her) were helped by the welfare system. Therefore, her success and his success cannot be taken as validation of the welfare system, as counter-evidence that the cycle of dependency is overblown. That was then, this is now.
Enough of that, on to the economics.
The reform is targeted at two groups:
- women with children.
The problem is that economic theory is unsatisfactory when it comes to thinking about children, which I discussed here. Because we cannot think about them well in theory, they are largely invisible when it comes to policy. The essential point is that economic actors are adult individuals whose childhoods are assumed. We don’t really say what those childhoods are or should be. In the language of economics, are they externalities? endowments? How do we think about their uneven allocation?
Let’s start with the teens. What is a teenager? It is a person who has just finished being a child and is now starting to be an adult. We can argue about how adult-like they are and what privileges and responsibilities they should have, but that is a question of degree. These people have just spend around 16 years as the responsibility of their parents, families, and communities, as well as schools, churches, and other institutions. If they aren’t ready to work or aren’t interested in study or training, whose fault is that? (Sondheim put it better, of course.) Put another way, what endowments should these economic actors have received from their childhoods?
The reforms have three major things for teens. The childcare assistance should be helpful. The incentives for work or study sound good, but why will they work when the previous 16 years or so haven’t? The ‘managed system of payments’ just sounds awful. It message is, ‘You haven’t learned to take care of yourself, so we’ll just do it for you. Here’s your pocket money’.
Moving on to the women-with-children reforms. There are two main thrusts. One is to put solo mums to work, part-time when children reach school age, full-time when the kids are 14. The other main thrust is contraception: thus, the provisions about having children while on the dole.
The focus of these reforms is clearly the mother. The government, and by extension, society, feels it has a claim on women who are receiving benefits. In return for the benefit, these women should be trying to work. The language of reform is about making sure that women aren’t ‘dependent’ and aren’t rorting the system. It is both paternalistic and suspicious.
The child is again invisible. Their experience is secondary or residual. But this is no surprise, because children exist in economic theory as the consumption goods of the parent (in wealthy countries; in poor countries they are investment goods). If we apply policy to the parent, then the quantity and quality of childhood adjusts.
Theory doesn’t help us decide what welfare policy is good for children. Childhood is not produced by society, but simply assumed to have happened to adults. Therefore, when we are making policy that affects children, we can make any assumption we choose.