Thursday, 7 October 2010

Responsible parenthood? "Choice" and the "role of the state"

In a follow up to the announcement at the Conservative Party Conference that a "cap" (with some qualifications) will be introduced, I think in 2013, to the amount that a family might receive in benefit payments, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave an interview in which he commented on how this might apply in the case of large families. It is worth looking at exactly what he did say, and noting that what he did say was very carefully worded and does not in itself constitute an "attack on large families":
"The number of children that you have is a choice and what we're saying is that if people are living on benefits then they make choices but they also have to have responsibility for those choices," he said.

"It's not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices."

Mr Hunt added: "You can have children but if you are going to ask for support that is more than the average wage that people earn then we're saying no, the state shouldn't support that.

"That's not fair on working people who have to pay the taxes to pay those benefits."
I offer reflections on these remarks under three headings, and a concluding remark.

1. Perceptions of large families

I can't find it at the moment, but a little while ago another blogger posted on the reaction of people in the street or around and about when they encounter a family with lots of children. I have some experience of this when taking my sister's children out to the park for an afternoon - if any of them are still at home, I have sometimes taken great delight in pointing out that there are "two more at home". More than once I have taken them into a cafe for ice cream or cake, and found the staff having a more positive and supportive attitude. In one case, the staff remembered us from when I had taken the children in during the previous summer holiday. I saw the less positive reaction again just a couple of weeks ago, stood as a marshal for LIFE's "Ten Bridges Walk" near the lift on one of the Jubilee Bridges across the Thames, when a family group with several children across a range of ages emerged from the lift.

One part of today's news story is the perception of children, particularly children in families that have more than two children, as being a burden or a cost to society. Jeremy Hunt's observation about it "[not being] fair on working people who have to pay the taxes to pay those benefits" cannot but contribute to this perception, and is unfortunate for that reason.

2. "Choices" or responsible parenthood

When the Culture Secretary spoke about choice with regard to the number of children that parents' have, I do not think that he had in mind the teaching of Humanae Vitae. However, the situation of a family whose circumstances mean that they are reliant on benefits might well be a situation included within the teaching of the following paragraph from Humanae Vitae n.10:
With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.

There is, however, clear water between the teaching of Humanae Vitae and the words of the Jeremy Hunt in two respects. The teaching of Humanae Vitae is clear that it is the parents who have responsibility for the decision making, and that they should have the freedom to make those decisions, and that parenthood is equally responsible if it chooses in favour of more children. Whilst Jeremy Hunt is careful to respect this in the first paragraph quoted above, the import of the benefits cap is to provide an element of external coercion in this decision making. I also suspect that the "methods" involved in the choice of family size in the minds of many listening to Jeremy Hunt's words will be methods of contraception, sterilisation or, even, abortion, all of which are incompatible with the teaching of Humanae Vitae.

3. The role of the state

My reflection here returns to the idea that children are seen as a cost or burden to society. Fundamentally, children should not be seen in this way. As future adult citizens, children are a good for society. One aspect of this being a good for society is economic. The children who are supported by benefits now are those who, in the majoirty of cases, will pay taxes in the future that contribute to the common good of the nation. But the economic is not the only aspect of the way in which children are a good for society. Children can already, as children, contribute to the social capital of society; and, as adults, they will in many cases make an even bigger contribution to the good of society expressed in its non-economic aspects. So, even in cases where the support given in benefits now will not be repaid in taxation revenue in the future, there will be a repayment in terms of social capital. Expressed in one way, those who are needy in society are just as much members of society as those who are wealthy and talented. Society has a duty to share with them its financial benefits.

"It is not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices". It can be very much the role of the state, acting through a system of financial benefits, to be the mechanism by which society meets obligations to its members, obligations that would otherwise not be met at lower levels in society (cf an idea of subsidiarity). It should not be the role of the state to provide a coercive preference for one choice over another. What Jeremy Hunt's observation here does not do justice to is the right balance between how "the state" relates to society as a whole.

4. A concluding remark

From a Catholic point of view, there is another consideration to the question of how many children one might have in one's family. This is that children are viewed, and welcomed, as a gift to a married couple and to wider society. This introduces a more theological and explicitly religious dimension to the question of family size, a theological and religious dimension that will inform a Catholic reaction to Jeremy Hunt's remarks.

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