A better term than ‘breeding for a business’


Pregnant with possibility

Back in 2002, some years before scaling the heights to the Prime Ministerial summit, John Key said that Labour’s Domestic Purposes Benefit policy had led to a situation “where people have been, for want of a better term, breeding for a business“.

Maybe the better term was one of those he applied in 2011 to beneficiaries who resorted to food parcels – well after attaining the Prime Ministership:

Mr Key responded by saying it was true that the global recession meant more people were on benefits.

“But it is also true that anyone on a benefit actually has a lifestyle choice. If one budgets properly, one can pay one’s bills.

“And that is true because the bulk of New Zealanders on a benefit do actually pay for food, their rent and other things. Now some make poor choices and they don’t have money left.”

Perhaps those in the ‘breeding business’ that is, have simply made a ‘lifestyle choice’ or – if the lifestyle is deemed not to be a good one – ‘poor choices’?

Or maybe not.

Either way, there is now ‘help’ for those beneficiaries prone to making ‘poor choices’. The government has recently announced an initiative to provide ‘reversible’ contraception to women receiving benefits, and their daughters. The proposal is to provide “long-acting, reversible contraception, initially for younger women, but later extended to all beneficiaries“.

Editors seemed to like it (here, here, and here ). As does the public.

If John Key – apparently along with many others – believes it’s about ‘poor choices’ perhaps he might consider implementing The Press columnist Martin van Beynen’s ‘Sex licence test‘. Here’s a sampler of the test, question number 6:

6. You come from a multi- generation beneficiary family and decide to become sexually active after being expelled from your third school in a year. You should:

a. Say to hell with contraception which is all about all those “f-s” telling you what to do.

b. Decide to score that awesome dude stacking the trolleys at the supermarket because no doubt he will father a rock or sports star who will make you rich one day.

c. Go to the doctor immediately and get a free implant which will control your fertility as long as you do not have work and a committed relationship.

Very humorous – for those who like to take their thinking about social issues in small doses.

But, back to reality and the question of what would really be a ‘better term’ than “breeding for a business“.

It seems that many people find it absolutely puzzling and mind-boggling how anyone might become pregnant when they can’t afford to, and positively unfair when the person doing it then receives a benefit paid for by those who may be foregoing having children because they judge they cannot, yet, afford to have them.

The editor of the Taranaki Daily News, for example, finds it

difficult to understand why a family which can’t support itself would want to add to its number. It is also difficult to understand why a single unemployed woman would choose to make her circumstances more difficult by having a child. Yet almost one in three women on a benefit have had a child while on the benefit.


A significant amount of taxpayers’ cash is handed out to people who elect not to take responsibility for their own actions and it is too easy to accuse those who address it of beneficiary bashing.


As it stands, taxpayers must pay for a significant number of unplanned pregnancies. They are made accountable for people who are not held accountable.

And yet again,

some parents are now rewarded for their lack of responsibility and poor decision-making.

Social Welfare was not established as an optional alternative to individual social responsibility.

I have no doubt that many New Zealanders would agree with these sentiments. One point, however, should be highlighted. On the one hand, it is baffling that a young woman would take on more children and so “make her circumstances more difficult” through “poor decision-making” (i.e., John Key’s notion of ‘poor choices’).

On the other hand, there’s a strong suggestion that this amounts to a calculated decision to abandon ‘personal responsibility’ in the full knowledge that the taxpayer will pick up the tab.

So which is it? A poor choice or a cunning display of exploiting the long-suffering taxpayer and so be “rewarded” for that lack of responsibility?

Comment is free, as it’s said. But it’s worth also considering some facts.

In the introduction to this article there’s a useful summary of a few general findings about the causes of teenage pregnancy in the United States and the likely life that has led to such ‘poor choices’ being made. According to Domenico and Jones (2007),

Research reveals many ado­lescent females become preg­nant intentionally because they see no other life goals within their reach (Winter, 1997). Plagued by poor school perfor­mance and low self-esteem, they have no realistic expectations about education or occupations; thus, pregnancy is viewed as an alternative path to economic in­ dependence and adult status (Brown & Barbosa, 2001; Farber, 2003; Rothenberg & Weissman, 2002; Turner, 2004).

While it interferes with the young girl’s education,

adolescents who become teen mothers are already expe­riencing academic difficulties in school, have low educational expectations, and are not confi­dent they will graduate from high school, or are attempting to escape abusive home situa­tions (Coles, 2005; Koshar, 2001).

As for decision making,

adolescent females decide to be­ come pregnant or they “drift” into pregnancy, as this decision appears to be their best option (Brindis & Philliber, 2003; Rothenberg & Weissman, 2002; Winter, 1997).

The factors influencing adolescent pregnancy include ‘family structure’:

Rosen (1997) found a growing number of American adolescent females lived in rela­tively unstable family situations and many became sexually inti­ mate for a short-term sense of comfort.

…’future expectations’,

Often the phenomenon of inten­tional pregnancy is limited to at- risk, low-income adolescents because they are more likely to perceive their futures as bleak and motherhood as a better op­tion (Davies et al., 2004).

Usually adolescents who became moth­ers experienced academic diffi­culties in school, or they at­tempted to escape abusive home situations (Koshar, 2001)

… Seeing no future for themselves and coupled with a lack of posi­tive role models to follow, ado­lescent females chose to become pregnant, as this decision ap­peared to be their best alterna­tive (Brown & Barbosa, 2001; Rothenberg & Weissman, 2002)

… Teen mothers viewed childbearing as the one thing they could do that was socially responsible, gave meaning to their lives, and offered hope for their futures (Rosen, 1997)

… ‘sexual abuse’,

Al­though the majority of adoles­cent females claimed their first sexual experience was volun­tary, Farber (2003) found about 40% of girls who first had inter­course at age 13 or 14 indicated involuntary or unwanted inter­course with an older partner. Herman-Giddens et al. (1998) reported that females who were sexually abused as children were three times more likely to become pregnant during their teen years and usually became pregnant at a younger age. Like­wise, about two-thirds of adoles­cent mothers were previously sexually abused or raped by a father, stepfather, or other rela­tive, and often suffered from low self-esteem and depression (Sarri & Phillips, 2004; Villarosa, 1997).

And, of course, ‘poverty’,

As many as 80% of unwed adolescent mothers grew up in extreme poverty and the likelihood their children will grow up in poverty is high. Many poverty-stricken adolescents accepted their pregnancy and viewed it as a means of improv­ing their lives (Rosen, 1997).

As for ‘breeding for a business’, the same study notes that,

Many Americans falsely assumed wel­fare encouraged people, espe­cially adolescent females, to have babies. Given the United States provided less support for single mothers, and the welfare benefits have steadily decreased since 1973, Luker (1996) stated there was likely no correlation between the level of welfare ben­efits and the incidence of out- of-wedlock births.

I’ve posted before ‘On choices – good and bad‘ and I’d make the same point here. Whether a ‘choice’ is good or bad depends on your starting assumptions. Normatively, a ‘choice’ might appear ‘poor’, but from the point of view of the ‘chooser’ and within the circumstances in which they find themselves, a supposedly ‘poor’ choice may be the best option available.

Qualitative studies of the experience of teenage pregnancy and motherhood paint a picture more positive than many realise (and here).

The editor of the Taranaki Daily news may like to read this study and hear the words of young women. It should add sufficient depth of understanding to anyone who still finds it “difficult to understand” why young women from disadvantaged backgrounds might end up as teenage mothers.

One review of the literature on the actual experiences of teenage mothers has argued that “Teenage parenting may be more of an opportunity than a catastrophe, and often makes sense in the life worlds inhabited by young mothers” and that the “yawning gulf between the experience of teenage parenting and policy … rests on assumptions of rational choice, in turn creating a `rationality mistake’“.

A later study (that appears to be in part based on that review) points out, according to one of its editors, that,

“Stereotypes of such young women as poor and ignorant, dysfunctional and immoral, engaging in casual sex and churning out babies who they cannot care for adequately and do not care about in order to gain access to welfare benefits and council housing, often underlie concerns about teenage pregnancy and parenting. However, these stereotypes are not borne out by the research evidence – in fact, quite the contrary.”

Yes, the children of teenage mothers may well have poor outcomes – but so did their mothers. In the midst of a poor environment, having a child can provide purpose, emotional meaning and – believe it or not – a sense of personal responsibility.

It [the study] concludes that “teenage childbirth does not often result from ignorance or low expectations, it is rarely a catastrophe for young women, and … teenage parenting does not particularly cause poor outcomes for mothers and their children”.

“Our research makes it clear that young parenthood can make sense and be valued and can even provide an impetus for teenage mothers and fathers to strive to provide a better life for their children,” Alexander said.

… The research also found that many teenage mothers express positive attitudes to motherhood, describing how “motherhood has made them feel stronger, more competent, more connected to family and society and more responsible“.

And, so far as policy responses to the issue are concerned,

the study argues that governments should focus on tackling the original disadvantage often experienced by teenage parents, rather than on attacking their decision to become parents. Its research confirms that children born to teenage mothers are born into disadvantage, but suggests that this disadvantage predates the pregnancy and is not the result of it.

… “Teenage childbearing in itself can be seen as only a minor social problem. It is not the teenage bit which is particularly important … rather it is social and economic disadvantage which produce poor outcomes,” the study argues.

Making ‘long-acting’ contraception available may well sound good. But without solving the broader issue that makes the choice of early motherhood a ‘good choice’, at best it may be totally ineffective and, at worst, it may reduce the likelihood of young women experiencing one of the few positive aspects of life left to them.

No, it’s not ‘breeding for a business‘.

It’s more like taking the only lifeboat available – ‘breeding for survival‘.

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26 Responses to A better term than ‘breeding for a business’

  1. just saying says:

    It’s more like taking the only lifeboat available – ‘breeding for survival‘.
    So true and so sad.
    Well said Puddleglum

    • Will Truth says:

      You quote Domenico and Jones (2007), who say “Research reveals … pregnancy is viewed as an alternative path to economic in­ dependence and adult status.”

      Doesn’t this quote actually support the position of people who say that the DPB encourages no hopers to breed? If there was no DPB then surely pregnancy would be less likely to be viewed as an alternative path to economic independance.”

      • Puddleglum says:

        Hi Will Truth,

        You’re quite right that those who hold that position could selectively quote that bit and claim it supports the idea that the DPB is the ’cause’ of teenage pregnancy.

        I’d make two points. First, such people would also have to ignore the comment I quoted from the same article (that itself quoted work by Luker, 1996) to the effect that there appears to be no correlation (at least in the US) between welfare provision for teen mothers and rates of teen pregnancy. An alternative reading of the bit you quote is that some young women may well believe that having a baby would involve their partner helping raise the child. In fact, quotes from one of the studies I mention (and mention that the editor of the Taranaki Daily News might wish to read) suggests that there is quite a naivety over the consequences of becoming a parent. One 17 year old interviewed in that study says:

        “Younger girls are meeting up with older boys and they talk you round it and ‘Oh no you won’t blah blah blah’ … and then, ‘Oh if you love me, you’ll let me not wear nothing [condom]’ and all that and I think, ‘Oh yeah—I really do love him’ blah blah … but you don’t know what it is. You think you love this person and they are wonderful and things, but …” (young mother, aged 17 years, disadvantaged background)

        That suggests to me that (a) many may well believe the man/boy they love (many of whom are older than the young woman) will show their love by sticking around, and (b) unsurprisingly, they aren’t thinking much at all about practicalities.

        The second point I’d make is the central point of the post: having a child is actually one of the few options available for changing what can be pretty dire circumstances. Taking the DPB away – even if it were part of the ‘calculation’ of young women – would be to remove that option without doing anything at all to change the dire circumstances they may well be in.

        To be honest, I just don’t buy in to the economic analysis that says that the DPB is an incentive, and I certainly don’t accept that it’s the decisive incentive. The primary cause is the lives being led. And those lives implicate far more than ‘personal choices’ – these young people are corks that have been bobbing around since birth in a sea that is hostile, just waiting to become waterlogged and, finally, sink.

        • Puddleglum says:

          I should add that there’s something ironic about worrying that the DPB provides ‘economic independence’. I’ve always thought that one of the reasons for it in the first place was to ensure that women – and any dependent children – could be economically independent when a relationship/marriage failed.

          Given the relationship of teenage pregnancy with poverty and abuse (noted in the post and in the Domenico and Jones (2007) article), why shouldn’t we want to provide a pathway of economic independence for such young women? Are they less deserving of having that made available for them than a middle-class, middle-aged woman who finds her marriage no longer workable (or is herself being abused)?

  2. warlock of firetop mountain says:

    As usual, the social science and data shows how muddled our ape brains are, and that decisions which impact our lives economically are more complicated than supply=demand and the punitive model. Maybe a little more focus on the corporate welfare and its intergenerational dependence and litters of horrid financial children could
    be time and money better spent than beating up on a few thousand poor woman. Shame on the ‘moral right’. A well done article thank you.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi warlock of firetop mountain (nice pseudonym, btw),

      Thanks for the compliment.

      I think I can understand, though, the frustration of some ‘ordinary joes’ on the ‘moral right’ when they get angry at ‘irresponsibility’. I agree with their ‘aim’ that we should do what we can as a society to produce autonomous and responsible people. My problem with the way they suggest we do it, though, is that it’s based on a completely incorrect understanding of what produces the behaviours they’re so worried about.

      To quote (again) from the study I linked to that interviewed young women from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds:

      The young mothers often talked about how becoming a parent had made them more mature and responsible, and also changed their view of what love was and what they wanted from a relationship. Love was now seen as a more developed emotion and a stable basis upon which to build a relationship and family, whereas sex was more transient

      Curiously, having a child may actually ‘fast-track’ the kind of mature, responsible world-view the right so often claim they wish to see in their fellow citizens :).

      As for the political right (and their active backers) playing to the ‘ordinary joes” concerns about the ‘irresponsibility’ of teenage mothers, I agree that it is shameful, even reprehensible.

  3. “breeding for a business” was always a dogwhistle, and very little else. John Key may be many things, one thing he is not is stupid. The use of the phrase “breeding for a business” was a calculated move to massively simplify and misrepresent what is a complex, indivudal and deeply personal issue, with the purpose of getting National onto the government benches. Mr Key understood this at the time and understands it now. The callousness required is astounding.
    I don’t have a problem with free contraception, including the long lasting and permanent stuff for both women and men. Targetting it at women on a benefit is unjustified. The thing is that people, for whatever reaosn, either choose not to use contraception, or do not choose to use contraception. When they do, the woman can fall pregnant.
    Something that, as far as I have seen, no one has alluded to, is the time between cause and effect. It’s kind of like a credit card, where you get the good things now and pay later, and that’s a mentality that in the business world is encouraged. Take the risk, see how it works out. It’s called being entreprenuerial. Except people are not limited liability companies.
    But back to breeding for a business, a lot of women on the DPB never expected to find themselves on it. Married, working, own home, two cars, dishdrawer, Sky TV etc. And one day it all falls to pieces, for one of a hundred reasons. Others genuinely live for today, and day to day. Nine months is a long long way away. Who knows what will happen in the interim. And when you live day to day, and have very little, taking away some more of that very little and leaving you with even less is not going to stop you from living from day to day. Quite the opposite.
    The stigma that you identify against teenage parenthood and against single parents is bizarre. But for a miscarriage I would have been a teenage parent. Would my life have been better for it, or worse? Who knows? It would have been different, that’s certain. Children are raised by one parent for numerous reasons, and in a sense this is the parent taking responsibility for what is best for them, and their children. Who are we to judge and say to someone that they should return to their partner? I quite like the approach taken in New Zealand, which nominally puts the interests and safety of the children first (though there are always exceptions).
    Your point that we should, as a society, address the underlying issues first, is well made.
    As a final observation, mid way through the post you say “On the one hand, it is baffling that a young woman would take on more children…”. Reflecting on this I thought that if the hypothetical young woman was taking on children that were not her own (i.e. as a form of adoption), especially in difficult circumstances, she would be viewed as heroic and receive all sorts of support.
    Breeding for a business is a vile term. Breeding for survival is kind of ugly too. We have, or do not have, children for so many reasons, or unintentionally. Examining these reasons with the benfit of hindsight is counter-productive. The fact is that when a child is born we have an obligation to them, and we must fulfill that obligation irrespective of the circumstances leading to their birth. I note here that children do not have any say in the matter, too. The obligation is not a one way thing, because as time passes the child that, for example, grew up with only one parent in a state house, might become a rich money trader or Prime Minister, pull their weight and really do their part looking out for all of us and fully contributing to society. Maybe.

    • Puddleglum says:

      HI Armchair Critic,

      Pretty much agree with all of that.

      I thought twice about ‘breeding for survival’ – the term ‘breeding’ is, of course, part of the derogatory aspect of the original insult.

      I stuck with it partly because it retains that original callousness and bounces it back at those who say ‘breeding for a business’ – kind of getting them to look in a mirror at their own language after, hopefully, making people see the inhumanity of that kind of language used against these young people.

      ‘Survival’ also has a certain callousness to it (e.g., the expression about wanting to ‘live, not just survive’) – I used that just to highlight that, according to the research, many of the circumstances surrounding teenage motherhood are not at all pleasant. The real harshness is in the circumstances, not in the act of having a child.

      Maybe I misjudged.

      • I didn’t offer an alternative, except some vague words around rejecting the whole basis of the idea of trying to judge people’s motives (or lack of motive) around having children. On that basis I would have to reject any label or stereotype applied. In a sense, every time someone chooses to have a child, or does not choose to not have one, it is both for survival, and business. Without children we are doomed.

  4. Raf says:

    “We have, or do not have, children for so many reasons, or unintentionally.”

    Isn’t this the point we should be focusing on? I don’t believe the argument that a teenager having a child to improve her outcomes is strong enough when measured against the enormous responsibility of brining new life into this world. Children are not commodities or self-esteem improvers. There are other ways to deal with difficult life experiences, such as counseling and further education (obviously access is an issue).

    I don’t think you can justify having a baby just to make yourself feel better, regardless of whether that seems to be the best choice available at the time. Having a child should absolutely be the most conscious decision anyone every makes. Availability of widespread contraception in the 70s caused a profound shift for women and their ability to manage and plan their child bearing. If improvements in contraceptive technology can allow for longer-term planning then we should embrace that opportunity (regardless of one’s economic status).

    The more planning that goes into the decision to have a child, the better it will be for all concerned.

    • Puddleglum says:

      I don’t think you can justify having a baby just to make yourself feel better, regardless of whether that seems to be the best choice available at the time. Having a child should absolutely be the most conscious decision anyone every makes.

      …”The more planning that goes into the decision to have a child, the better it will be for all concerned.

      Hi Raf,

      I understand your point here – having a child represents an unprecedented change in anyone’s life (or should). As my father always used to tell my mother when she got angry with us children: ‘They didn’t ask to be born.’ (of course, neither did my mother!).

      I’m not sure whether your main concern is that pregnancies are happening ‘unintentionally’ or, by contrast, that they are happening intentionally but for the ‘wrong’ reasons (e.g., to ‘feel better’). Or perhaps both?

      I’d say a few things in response, though I may be misinterpreting you (apologies if that’s the case).

      First, I’m not arguing that such young people should have children in their circumstances (as one study linked to above reveals, many teenage mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds do regret having become pregnant – yet, of course, they still very much love and care for their children). I’m not even arguing that the attempt to improve their circumstances by having children is justified.

      No, I’m simply saying that that is why many seem to do it – according to the research. And that, given the circumstances, it’s quite understandable and a thoroughly human response. I was trying to argue that, therefore, it’s not about ‘breeding for a business’.

      Second, if people don’t think that having children would make them, personally, “feel better” then no-one would have children voluntarily. In fact, what kind of ‘conscious’, rationally ‘planned’ decision would lead someone to opt for a circumstance they knew would not be positive for them? I think you’re asking too much of humanity there. (Also, having parents who do not find parenting personally rewarding probably isn’t best for the child, either.)

      And surely you’re not implying that those who ‘consciously’ decide (‘plan’) to have children do not contemplate the deeper meaning and sense of fulfillment they believe such an event may add to their life or the warm feelings of love that having a child might inspire in them? Surely, in the ‘planning’ consideration would be given to the positive impact on one of having a child?

      Or are you saying – as so many do – that we should only ‘indulge’ those feelings if we can afford to? (If you would say ‘yes’ you’d be admitting that it’s not actually doing something to ‘feel better’ personally that is wrong just whether or not you can pay the material price to ‘feel better’.) That would, of course, come ‘dangerously’ close to seeing child-rearing as a commodity that can be bought (and perhaps become a status symbol – as children have often been seen throughout the millenia).

      Also, I think you minimise the motivation I tried to highlight from the research by phrases like “just to make you feel better”. My point is that it’s more like “trying to live a good, and better, life” – doing something responsible (i.e., being a parent) rather than wasting one’s life. Committing yourself to something more important than you (doesn’t that in itself show a suitable awareness of “the enormous responsibility of bringing new life into this world”?).

      Now you, or others, might wish to judge that when many young women allow a pregnancy to continue in order to opt for a more ‘responsible’ life they are just being ignorant of their own situation and that, in fact, such a decision is ‘irresponsible’ as it will adversely affect any child-to-be. You might be right, but I’m not sure we’d want the state – or anyone else – to start making those judgments.

      If, for example, I were in that judgmental position there would be far more than a few middle-class parents-to-be, carefully ‘planning’ for the birth of their child, who would in no way pass my muster: They both want to continue working full time a few months after the birth? FAIL. They don’t live in the place where extended family members live? FAIL. They expect to be moving houses and neighbourhoods in the next few years? FAIL. They don’t have deeply integrated interactions with non-transient neighbours? FAIL. They have materialistic values and believe that pursuing material goals is an important orientation in life? FAIL.

      You see, when it comes to having children, there’s almost an infinity of ways to be ‘irresponsible’ – that some of them are socially acceptable (or even inescapable) shouldn’t blind us to the fact that they remain ‘irresponsible’ from the point of view of child development and adult outcomes. And it isn’t a very good argument to say that because such conditions are ‘normal’ in our society we should let such parents have children under those conditions – if we followed your well-intended injunction to put as much thought into the decision as possible.

      After all, I could equally argue that, because for the majority of disadvantaged young people their circumstances are ‘normal’ within their social class (even inescapable), they too should be ‘allowed’ (i.e., not be judged too harshly) to have children under those conditions – just as middle-class parents should be ‘allowed’ (i.e., not be judged too harshly) to have children even though they both have to work full-time to ‘make ends meet’ in our world.

      Sauce for the goose and the gander, please.

      Personally, I don’t find explanations in terms of individual choices very satisfying. It’s easy to blame ‘poor decision making’ of individuals – it’s much harder to see the social processes that result in such ‘decisions’ (the word ‘decision’ puts far too tidy a gloss for my liking on the actual mix of processes that produces our behaviour = but that’s another argument).

      Finally, I think you have more faith in the efficacy of taking advantage of “counselling and further education” than I do, so far as transforming lives in the circumstances emphasised in the literature goes. For one thing, the teenage women who end up having a child tend to already be struggling in the education system (as noted in the post).

      And counselling is ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ stuff and shouldn’t be a substitute for working to eliminate the prevailing circumstances within which young people are making these ‘decisions’ (i.e., being adrift in a hostile sea, as I put it in response to another comment).

      That the answer to this problem should be person-by-person behavioural engineering, as opposed to the much less intrusive machinery of social engineering (through much more humane, democratically-determined social and economic policies, for example) is, I think, misguided – as clinical psychologists such as David Smail have long argued.

      Thanks for your comment Raf. It made me think and I hope I haven’t misinterpreted your intent.

      • Puddleglum says:

        BTW, nice blog Raf. (By which I mean I learnt a lot reading a few of the posts!)

        Do you mind if I add it to my blogroll?

      • Raf says:

        Thanks for such a detailed and informed reply. This is a particularly difficult area of inquiry, so it’s good to see some serious debate taking place.

        I understand more clearly now the “why”. I also acknowledge the situational aspects of young mothers, as well as our own personal socio-cultural positions. That is not say that removing available benefits (as a given) might not act as a disincentive, especially when combined with offers of free, long-term contraception (and all other sexual health services) to all young people. I’d like to hope that we can create a society where there are other options open to young women, other than having a baby in their teenage years (again, I take your point that this is not necessarily a terrible outcome).

        I also appreciate your comments on having children in general terms (sauce for the goose and gander). It’s easy to fall into a judgmental tone here and I am trying to avoid that. I absolutely agree better social and economic policies are needed, which is why I am strongly promoting the idea of a universal basic income, which will eliminate welfare entirely. I am working on a new proposal in that area and have pencilled in a limit to the amount of children that can be supported under a UBI (at the moment i have 2/3 as a number). That does not mean people (any people) can’t or shouldn’t have more children than the prescribed limit but clearly the amount of income per child would be lower. I do have one eye on the issue of population growth and that’s something we also need to consider, though it’s not specific to this issue.

        The education system also seems to be struggling to meet the needs of many children passing through. So more flexibility is required here and more thought needs to go into what education means in the 21st century.

        I like the idea of exploring the concepts of personal choice and responsibility in more detail. We do assume, again from our own position, that decision making is a simple, rational process. It may well be, but the inputs to that rationality differ from person to person, depending on their own personal circumstances. So perhaps more appreciation of that fact will lead to less judgment from those in a more secure and privileged life position and allow for a more reasoned policy debate.

        • Puddleglum says:

          Hi Raf,

          I agree this is a difficult area of inquiry and I appreciate the care you took in responding.

          I’m intrigued by the idea of a universal income. I’m not an economist but the basic principle that, as a society, we guarantee some level of sustenance appeals.

          And thanks for the ‘go ahead’ on adding your site to my blogroll!

    • Isn’t this the point we should be focusing on? I don’t believe the argument that a teenager having a child to improve her outcomes is strong enough when measured against the enormous responsibility of brining new life into this world. Children are not commodities or self-esteem improvers. There are other ways to deal with difficult life experiences, such as counseling and further education (obviously access is an issue).

      I don’t think you can justify having a baby just to make yourself feel better, regardless of whether that seems to be the best choice available at the time. Having a child should absolutely be the most conscious decision anyone every makes.
      Sure, and that’s all good and fine in theory.
      My point, and I apologise if it was insufficiently clear, is that the reasons (or lack of reasons) for having a child are independent of and irrelevant to our collective responsibility to the child, and to the child’s parent, parents or guardians.
      It doesn’t matter why they were born – once it happens it’s too late to go all retrospective and judgemental and say “well, you weren’t born for the right reasons, so we will treat you and yours as second class citizens.”
      The assumption that we act completely rationally at all times, under all circumstances, is hopelessly flawed and one consequences is that children will continue to be conceived unplanned and under circumstances others see as unsuitable.
      I like your blog, BTW.

  5. James says:

    Leg one of this comment: I once met someone who talked about school kids from a poor area having children. It sounded like that was the time in their lives when they had access to the most support, because they weren’t going to have careers that would pay for child-care.

    So it was an economically rational decision.

    Leg two: I haven’t heard whether equal effort will be spent on making care of STDs accessible. If it isn’t, then I could imagine the contraception policy ending up as genocide by STD.

  6. Lindsay says:

    “Given the United States provided less support for single mothers, and the welfare benefits have steadily decreased since 1973, Luker (1996) stated there was likely no correlation between the level of welfare ben­efits and the incidence of out- of-wedlock births.”

    In The End Of Welfare by Michael Tanner, 1996, he writes,

    “In all, there have been 14 major studies that have found a statistically significant correlation between welfare and out-of-wedlock births.” On pages 78 to 80 he describes some of the studies and their findings.

    And Spanish Academic Libertad Gonzales conducted European research which also found a correlation.

    In the US cash benefits are generally low (although they vary significantly from state to state) but other forms of assistance combine to boost the overall ‘package’ eg food stamps, housing subsidies, childcare, utility assistance, Medicaid.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Lindsay,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and citing Michael Tanner’s book.

      Yes, I am familiar with Michael Tanner and his work. I would encourage readers to follow that link and read it, especially the section entitled ‘Eliminating the Welfare State’ and come to their own conclusions about its objectivity, and suggested replacement.

      I’m also aware that you have spent much time and energy arguing for ‘welfare reform’ on the assumption that it creates something that you, and many others, refer to as ‘welfare dependency’.

      It is, of course, mistaken but, given the correlational nature of much of the research that is perhaps understandable. We are all prone to confirmation bias.

      I’d suggest that you – and other readers following this post – read this article that describes the concerted, and inaccurate, attempts by the American Right (including fellows of the Cato Institute such as Michael Tanner) to portray welfare as a major source (cause) of welfare dysfunction. Here’s a ‘teaser’:

      During the political build-up to the signing of PRWORA [Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act], the Right further developed and highlighted its earlier assertions of an epidemic of illegitimacy, widespread abuse in the welfare system, and generations of permanent welfare recipients in the same family. These inaccuracies went almost unchallenged in the media and even by many Democrats. No amount of correction and clarification of the Right’s inaccuracies and misrepresentations could dent public support for welfare reform. For example, in a 1994 press release, seventy-six social scientists with varying political viewpoints issued a joint statement that previous research does not support the conclusion that welfare is a primary cause of rising non-marital births.[35] Yet a White House Report issued soon after this press release maintained that:

      ‘Statistical evidence does not prove those suppositions [that welfare benefits are an incentive to bear children]; and yet, even the most casual observer of public assistance programs understands there is indeed some relationship between the availability of welfare and the inclination of many young women to bear fatherless children.'[36]

      Michael Lind, in his book Up from Conservatism, has pointed out that sociologist Charles Murray’s statistics on the “dramatic increases in Black illegitimacy” were an artifact of an entirely different development in the African American community.[37] While Murray enflamed popular opinion by touting that “[i]llegitimacy has now reached 68 percent of births to black women. In inner cities, the figure is typically in excess of 80 percent.”,[38] Lind points out that four-fifths of the increase in African American illegitimate births as a proportion of overall African American births is explained by an increase in married employed African American women deciding to have fewer children. An examination of the rate of babies born to unwed African American teenagers remains virtually unchanged from 1920 through 1990.[39]

      But the Right’s analysis, based on misinformation, blatant distortions, and racial stereotypes, carried the day in 1996 and persists after the passage of the PRWORA. In 1995 the Cato Institute, a right-wing libertarian think tank based in Washington, DC, issued a report claiming that welfare paid more than a low-wage job in every state in the nation.[40] However, in its calculations, Cato researchers counted as income programs such as WIC and housing assistance, which the vast majority of welfare recipients did not receive.[41]

      Similarly, the myth of widespread permanent welfare status proved equally impossible to correct. Numerous reports and studies demonstrated that welfare was a transient state for most recipients and that it served primarily as a temporary safety net during financial crisis caused by job loss or family crisis.[42]

      Thanks again Lindsay – it’s always good to get people thinking, and doing so in a non-confrontational manner.

  7. Lindsay says:

    I’ve responded to your comment and two of the cited claims at my blog because I wanted to use a couple of jpgs.


    I don’t disagree with your view that girls have babies for reasons other than to secure an income (notwithstanding they are each individually motivated). As for dealing with the circumstances that make becoming a parent the best option, the new youth reforms address exactly that. Whether they will succeed is another matter.


    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Lindsay,

      Thanks very much for the response (on your blog).

      A couple of comments in response.

      First, I’m not opposed to people (all people) having more information about and cheaper access to contraception and, for women, abortion services.

      As one of the studies I linked to made clear, a factor for disadvantaged young women becoming pregnant (and staying pregnant) was incorrect information about how to use contraception and lack of the ‘cultural capital’ for accessing, and therefore relatively smooth connectedness to, abortion services. In addition, some of the disadvantaged young women apparently had a moral problem about having an abortion (in that study).

      The young women from advantaged backgrounds in that same study were no more or less sexually active than disadvantaged women but tended to be better informed about, and had a willingness to use, contraception and abortion services.

      My main concern was not about the recent proposal to provide free long-acting contraception to young women beneficiaries but, rather, the apparent rationale underpinning that, and similar, policies – that, in effect, young women are ‘breeding for a business’ and that, therefore, the main aim is simply to get them off the benefit (rather than alter the conditions in which they live).

      It seems that you and I agree that multiple factors are involved in young women becoming pregnant. Where we differ is that I don’t agree that the elimination of, or further constraints upon the receipt of, the DPB would produce a discernible reduction in rates of pregnancy in teenage women.

      Partly that’s because of individual ‘motives’ but, more importantly, it’s about the conditions within which a significant proportion of the population live. Those won’t be changed by removing the DPB. And that’s because – if you want my underlying position – we have an economic system that even its defenders acknowledge is based principally on the constant disruption of people’s lives (‘creative destruction’ it is aptly called).

      The most vulnerable will inevitably have the most disrupted lives in such an environment (as common sense suggests they will have less resilience and adaptive capacity).

      That disruption includes the dislocation and undermining of forms of employment, the willingness to ‘allow’ labour to migrate around in search of the latest area that offers employment, the need to reinvent, repeatedly, one’s skills and training, etc.. That destructiveness may be very good for ‘prosperity’ but it is very bad for the maintenance and flourishing of stable, cohesive, internally supportive communities. As anyone remotely aware of human developmental processes and principles will tell you, such instability during a developmental process is anathema to positive outcomes (in fact, I’d define an important aspect of ‘poverty’ as the degree of ‘uncontrollability’ over the material conditions of one’s life – where and how you work and live).

      We pay a price for organising ourselves and our world around ‘prosperity’ – it is not, as economists might put it, a ‘free lunch’. The price we pay for that lunch is just the kind of things that I think concern you – rising rates of mental illness, social dysfunction, formation of an ‘underclass’, marginalisation, generally chaotic lives of individuals, etc..

      That’s about the sum total of my ‘ideology’ on this issue.

      Second, I see your graphs (on your blog) confirm, or don’t contradict, the claim that rates of African American ‘out of wedlock’ births were pretty constant between 1920 and 1990. So I take it you accept that point?

      Since 1990, the graphs you posted indicate significant reductions in that rate, especially amongst African Americans but also, to a much smaller degree in other groups. You think – or at least I assume you do – that that decline is associated with ‘welfare reforms’ initiated prior to and during that period? These ‘reforms’ being removal of access to cash benefits, etc.

      I’m interested in why you are interested in that particular possibility rather than others such as (a) the economic up-turn in the 1990s (If I recall from the link in my last response, that was the explanation for the increase in the proportion of African American ‘out of wedlock’ births prior to 1990 – more employment and therefore fewer births overall, therefore unmarried births formed a greater proportion of the birth rate) and (b) the increased funding for Medicaid and related contraception and abortion services (here and here), especially for low income groups. I’m particularly interested in the latter as I also take it that you support the current proposal to provide free, long-acting contraception to young women beneficiaries (suggesting that you think it will be an effective measure)? Given that African Americans are disproportionately represented amongst the low income groups, the effect would be particularly significant for that group.

      [Disturbingly, there is a current debate in the US about cutting such ‘family planning’ assistance.]

      There’s a third possible cause for this decline in rates of unmarried births – marriage may have become popular again, especially for young teenagers (I seem to recall something about the ‘resurgence’ of marriage?). There’s also the artefactual effect stated in the footnote to the table underpinning the graphs (in the original source):

      Trends in non-marital births may be affected by changes in the reporting of marital status on birth certificates and in procedures for inferring non-marital births when marital status is not reported.” (Interestingly, the rates of unmarried births reduced far less significantly for African Americans aged 18 and 19 years (about15% between 1995-2002) than it did for 16-17 year olds (33%) – why would that be the case given that, presumably, any ‘welfare reforms’ would have affected those groups equally?)

      Given these other possible explanations why focus on an explanation that, if incorrect, could result in significant further hardship (i.e., no effect on birth rates but more instability of income for the mother)? Isn’t that quite a risk to take?

      Finally (and thank you for raising so many issues to think about), the New Zealand research you cite in relation to length of time on a benefit needs to be looked at quite carefully to understand the figures and how they are derived. If you look at Table 1 in detail you’ll notice some unsurprising features that might make the ‘summary stats’ you mention seem less disturbing.

      For example, the proportion of ‘history period’ spent on a benefit is highest for the ‘Early Starter’ group than the other groups. Given that ‘history period’ represents either ten years or the age back till their 18th birthday (or 16 or 17 if they received the Independent Youth Allowance) this is hardly surprising. The Early starter group will, by definition, include young women (mostly) who started to receive a benefit because they had a child while young (rather than because a relationship broke up), and those who were still younger than 28 would have a history period of less than ten years.

      Some 62% of this early starter group still have their youngest child aged 4 and under; 94% of this group have their youngest child aged 9 and under. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m happy to see young mothers with preschool children still being at home for their children. If that means that, for example, a 22 year old who has their youngest child still under 5, has 100% of their ‘history period’ on a benefit, that’s good news, isn’t it? (Personally, I’d have parental leave provisions of at least 3 years duration for everyone.)

      Also, that same research reinforces the argument that it is social deprivation that predisposes young women to be teenage parents. As it says, some 56% of teenage pregnancies are for women in NZ Deprivation Index areas 8, 9 and 10 with almost a quarter (23%) coming from NZDep 10, alone. They cite the same kinds of predisposing factors (physical violence, sexual abuse, disengagement from schooling, ‘mental health issues’, substance abuse, etc.) as I mentioned in the post. They also comment that:

      The evidence on whether teen parenting itself is associated with further disadvantage for mothers, over and above that associated with their pre-existing disadvantage, is more mixed

      Thanks for this debate. I’m sure we both want the same things in terms of a world that is more hospitable for the people now being born into it. But I still don’t see that the DPB is itself the problem.

      Once again, these young women are not ‘breeding for a business’.

  8. Lindsay says:


    My further response. Please excuse me now for I have a pile of ironing to do, family to feed and animals to tend. And like you I appreciate the civil nature of our discussions.


  9. Maurice says:

    A good article, thanks. They way I understand it is that the decision for a teen to seek out pregnancy is an attempt to obtain autonomy, mastery and purpose; elements that drive intrinsic motivation.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Maurice,

      Thanks very much for the compliment.

      It’s important to remember, as Armchair Critic argues up-thread, that people – including teens – end up having a baby for all sorts of reasons.

      But, as you say, a lot of the young women in the research I cited seem to see having a baby as the one positive thing they can do in life. Sure, we can criticise how they raise their children but it seems to come through loud and clear that their intent is to do what’s right for the child.

      There’s one interview in one of the links where some teenage mothers talk about how they know they spend too much on their children’s clothes, but it’s to show others that they are ‘good mothers’ and take care of their children and don’t neglect them. Slightly older and wiser they realise that expensive clothes aren’t what matters but, at the time, right or wrong, the intent seems to have been to do a good job of being a mother.

      Thanks again Maurice.

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