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Benefit cuts for large, workless families

The UK's culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has suggested that the state should limit the provision of social security benefits to large, unemployed families. Hunt said last week that

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

Two quite different arguments might be offered in support of such a move.

One would appeal to considerations of deterrence. It would hold that it is a bad thing when impoverished parents have a large number of children, and that we should try to prevent this bad outcome by creating a financial penalty that will deter parents in poverty from reproducing. This argument seems very unpromising. Leaving aside whether the outcome is indeed bad, it seems very doubtful whether a financial penalty would have much of a deterrent effect on parents whose lives are likely to be so beset with problems that they have little opportunity to think about anything but the here-and-now. And even if a financial penalty would have an effect, it seems doubtful that the denial of ongoing benefit support would be the right sort of penalty. For one thing, its costs would fall largely on the children in these families, not on those — the parents — who are supposed to be deterred. For another, much of the cost lies far into the future for those who are actually faced with decisions about whether to have children. Given the high degree to which most people discount future outcomes, it would seem that a more effective incentive would be a one-off tax on births in large impoverished families, or subsidies for abortion or effective use of contraception. (I'm not suggesting that these policies would be a good idea, all things considered, just that they would more effectively disincentivize the creation of large impoverished families. It may be, of course, that financial incentives have no place at all in this setting, and that we should rely instead on education, ease of access to contraception and so on.)

A second argument would appeal to considerations of fairness, holding that it is unfair for large impoverished families to receive greater government support than others since they have no greater moral claim to it. It could be argued, for example, one has a claim to benefit support to the extent that one deserrves it, and that large families are not more deserving of it support than others, since they chose, or are responsible for, the situation in which they find themselves. This seems to be roughly the argument that Hunt has in mind. He claims that parents must take responsibility for their choices, and that

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.

One problem with this argument is that it is not clear that one's claims to benefit support depend wholly on desert. Many would argue that need or serious deprivation can give one a claim to support. The members of large impoverished families may be among the most needy members of society, and may as a result have among the strongest claims to benefit support. If so, there may be nothing unfair about providing high levels of benefit support to such families.

Another problem is that the argument seems to focus only on the claims of the parents in such families, not on those of the children. Though the parents may be responsible for creating large, impoverished families, their children are not at all responsible for being born into such families. These children may have strong desert-based claims to benefit support, certainly as strong as those of children in smaller impoverished families. Thus, even if desert is all that matters in the allocation of benefits, and even if the parents of such families are indeed responsible for their situation, the suggested policy would be unfair in an important respect. It would treat the children in large, impoverished families less favourably than those in smaller impoverished families even though they are no less deserving of benefit support. If the culture secretary is really concerned about matching benefits to desert, then he should devise some way of better targeting support to such families so that the benefits fall primarily on the children, not the parents. 

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Of course you’re right, Tom. I suspect a missing premise in Hunt’s argument is the old right-wing myth that unemployment is voluntary. So if a cut in benefits affects children, that will be because their mother and/or father can’t be bothered to work. If things go as they did under Thatcher (and no doubt they will), as unemployment goes up, and it becomes ever harder for people to find work, the myth will reappear ever more often in the hope of deflecting blame from the Government. By the way, a friend reported to me another interesting position on fairness, voiced by George Osborne at the Tory conference recently — that, to be fair, the cuts should fall equally on rich and poor. Another Thatcherism, which of course was part of her downfall…

  2. Thanks Roger. Yes, I’m sure that premise was at work there somewhere… Though even then, it’s hard to see how imposing the costs on children could be fair.

    That’s a pretty impressive illustration of status quo bias from Osborne!

  3. Thx Tom. I think the idea would be that it was the *parent* who was imposing the cost (as in Bernard Williams’s Jim case, it would be the captain and Pedro who were responsible for killing the Indians, not Jim). Hence all the talk from Hunt about ‘taking responsibility’, etc.


  4. What has income or wealth redistribution through taxation and transfers to do with desert or fault? Welfare benefits, including those that are disguised as entitlements for all, have no basis in desert or in justice, if justice is assuring each what is due that person. But see Rawls’s Theory of Justice (whose support for the least well-off depended on a contrived consensus by deciders behind a “veil of ignorance”)

    I think the ethics of welfare distribution is exhausted by the elimination of harmful (unfair?) discrimination from the distribution and a decision as to the moral necessity of providing what counts as minimally necessary for survival of the recipient. The rest is social policy based, in part on the moral effect (the effect on respect for or valuation of humans as such) of refusing a certain level of support to the very poor, and in part on the degree to which this support is socially harmful (e.g. deters seeking gainful employment, reinforces habits of dependence). Doesn’t this make free public education into welfare subject to the same kind of criticism (usually approached with a narrow look at public benefits of a particular amount of money spent on educating the children of the poor in some form).

    People who complain that the wrong people (e.g. large families, the voluntarily unemployed, etc.) are getting welfare payments are often using the language of desert, but they may also be making a perfectly rational social-benefits argument (e.g. deterring large families among the poor; encouraging seeking gainful employment) which can be dealt with empirically by questioning whether those effects are actually produced by a particular regime of welfare payments.

    Of course, this renders all talk about decisions freely made that lead some to poverty, doesn’t it?

  5. Thanks Dennis. I’ll limit myself to commenting on what I think is a tension between two of your claims: that “welfare benefits … have no basis in desert or in justice, if justice is assuring each what is due to that person” but that welfare benefits may aim to eliminate “harmful (unfair?) discrimination from the distribution”. I’m not sure that you’ll be able to give an account of what counts as harmful/unfair discrimination that leaves what is due to each person out of the picture. Arguably, discrimination is unfair or problematic precisely when it involves treating people differently though “what is due to them”, whether in virtue of their desert, need, previous agreements or whatever, is the same. So, it seems to me that to determine whether denying benefits to large workless families while providing them to smaller families counts as unfair/problematic discrimination, we’ll need to ask what is due to these different types of families.

  6. Tom: you are right about my failure to clarify “harmful discrimination”. My take on that concept is essentially classical liberal; that is, it is limited to the requirement that distinctions be disregarded that are socially harmful, in general. So, distinctions based on race, sex, religion, political party, are usually suspect under this concept of “harmful discrimination”. I suppose you could discriminate in terms of family size if it were to serve a policy that has some basis in fact (e.g. to reduce large families among the poor, on the assumption that a reduced benefit per additional child after n children would work without producing horrible hardship).

    For the reasons I stated in my previous note, and because I am a determinist, I reject deserving or evil as a basis for distribution, unless “deserving” or “evil” refer to particular conditions that are to be eliminated or tempered by the reduction or addition of benefits. I don’t believe that people are “guilty” of making bad decisions or somehow “at fault” when they do something someone finds socially harmful. You can talk about responsibility when that responsibility relates to conduct that can be deterred by … etc.

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