Children are not a lifestyle choice

Chris Dillow complains that the Government's proposal to subsidise childcare for households with incomes up to £300,000 is "inegalitarian and economically illiterate". Much of his argument makes sense. His observation that subsidising childcare will benefit employers as much as parents is particularly important: childcare subsidies are in effect wage subsidies, and wage subsidies are known to depress wages. And his waspish remark that the Government would rather give "yummy mummies an extra bottle of Chardonnay" than fund early years education properly rings all too true. This looks very like the latest iteration of "Help to Buy Votes" - yet more pre-election bribery of middle-class couples. 

But I have to take issue with him on this (my emphasis):
Let's start from the fact that this subsidy must be paid for by other tax-payers. It's therefore not just a subsidy to parents, but a tax on singletons.
This is inegalitarian not just because it means that a single person on the minimum wage is subsidizing the lifestyle choice of couples on six-figure incomes.....
It seems Chris thinks it is unfair that single people on low incomes should pay to support the children of much richer people. I beg to differ.

Having children is often described as a "lifestyle choice", usually by people without children who object to supporting families with children. But this is poisonous quasi-egalitarian nonsense. People who choose not to have children rely on other people's children to support them in their old age. Whose taxes will pay for their pensions, benefits and healthcare if other people don't have children? Whose production will ensure that they have food on the table and money to spend from the returns on their investments?  

When people without children support families with children from their taxes - or directly through philanthropic giving - they are contributing to their own futures. They may not realise it, but they have as much interest in ensuring that those children are properly cared for and educated as the parents do.  

And I'm sorry, Chris, but describing children as a "lifestyle choice" is itself economically illiterate, at least at the macro level. At the individual level, having children is indeed a choice. But for society as a whole, children are essential. Without children, there can be no future growth. Just look at Japan. 

People have come to believe that working hard and saving will be sufficient to ensure a secure and prosperous old age. Children are a cost, so if we can't afford them we shouldn't have them. But if economic growth is absent in the future because the population is ageing and declining, people's faith in working hard and saving as the key to a secure future will turn out to be hollow. And our failure to invest adequately in the care and education of children may come back to haunt us. Investment in human capital is every bit as important for economic growth as investment in physical capital. Sharing the cost of caring for children and educating children is in the interests of people without children as much as those with children.

So it is not "inegalitarian" that a single person on a low wage should subsidise childcare for well-off couples. On the contrary, it is completely egalitarian - perhaps too egalitarian, to some minds, since it to some extent removes the financial responsibility for the care of children from the families into which they were born. Personally I welcome the principle of social contribution towards the care of children. It is a long overdue move towards recognising that care of children is as much a social responsibility as education of children. It doesn't go far enough - parents who choose to give up work to care for their children will not receive this benefit, which I think is wrong. But it is at least a move in the right direction. 

We can argue about whether a single person on the minimum wage should be taxed at all. Personally I think they should not. But if we agree that they should be taxed, it is reasonable that those taxes should be used to contribute towards the care of children, however well-off their parents. And if it is also considered reasonable that well-off couples should contribute more towards the care of children than single earners on low incomes, then tax away their childcare benefits. There is more than one way of using tax policy to achieve an equitable outcome. 

The entire developed world - actually, with the exception of the UK, which currently has something of a baby boom going on - is suffering a decline in fertility rates, which I think is largely to do with the rising opportunity cost of having children, particularly for educated women. If we want a prosperous economic future, we need to enable working people to have children if they wish, by reducing those opportunity costs: subsidising childcare goes some way towards addressing this problem. And we also need to invest generally in the care and education of children: I do not regard early years' education as an alternative to childcare subsidies, but a complement to them. 

But to achieve the political will to do this, we need to stop regarding children as a luxury of the well-off. Children are not a "lifestyle choice". They are our future. 


  1. Hi, Thanks for replying.
    You're right that we need future generations. If it were the case that Brits were failing to reproduce as the Japanese are, I would be sympathetic to arguments for incentives to change this. But this is not our problem now, as people seem to be having more kids anyway: the fertility rate has risen in recent years.
    And even if it were our problem, there would be better ways of incentivizing people to have kids than a subsidy which is only available to families where both parents work.
    I'm all in favour of investing in our kids to make them as productive as possible. But the childcare subsidy doesn't do it. And to introduce it whilst doing so little to help under-qualified and unemployed teenagers become more employable looks to me to be a shameful inversion of priorities.

    1. Hi Chris,

      I did point out that the UK actually has rising fertility rates at the moment....

      I agreed with much of your post, and I don't think this childcare subsidy is the best solution to the problem of under-investment in the care and education of children. It's badly designed and not really fit for purpose. And I share your concern about under-qualified and unemployed teenagers.

      I was really hijacking your post to make a general point about the self-defeating attitude of many voters and, therefore, policy makers towards investment in the care and education of children. Currently we give a higher priority to supporting the old than we do the young, which economically is madness. There seems to be a massive disconnect in people's minds between their efforts in the present and their returns in the future: they work hard and save in the present, and expect future returns simply to "appear". They don't seem to realise that they have to invest in the future - both physical capital and human capital - in order for there to be any future returns.

      I''ve heard having children described as a "lifestyle choice" many times. It's high time that was debunked.

    2. Andrew S. Mooney20 March 2014 at 09:11

      One unstated aspect of the childcare subsidy is that it is not there to assist in this expense, it is simply to see to it that women who have children have *no excuse* not to go out and work to boost the economy. Childcare in the UK is massive ripoff compared to other countries and the logic many people have when dealing with this is that it is not worth working if that work is simply being demanded to then pay a child minder. It's got to profit the person doing the work, after all.

      But the government doesn't see it that way, in that every person who is working productively is an economic benefit, even if they are being manipulated into doing that with no gain to themselves.

      Your thoughts upon Japan are just wrong. Japanese economic conditions are very different to Britain in that they have spent the last decade in particular being serious international investors through their manufacturing base. *The one the someone decided that she didn't need because we had North Sea Oil revenues and could invest them through the city.* Their investments and returns by definition, don't show up in the general economics of Japan's economy though, other than in the form of the eerily large sums of money that their corporations are all sat on.

      Female workforce participation rates are a nice cheap method of expanding your workforce, and many women go along with it thinking that they are going to profit by it. But they are also a nice cheap method of driving down overall male and female wages due to the larger number of people competing for the work relative to other economies where the labour market is mostly male. If it has reached the point where both partners in a relationship have GOT to be working, for their lifestyle to stack up, rather than wages from one partner being enough to support a family, you're not wealthy after all.

      Japanese female workforce participation rates are rising. That would suggest to me that they are getting used to the idea of being "poor," because male workers' wages have been flat for years as they have been everywhere.

      But that further plugs into the idea of flat birth rates. If you feel poor, you don't have children. Contrast that to Britain, though, where a huge proportion of those children born lately have an immigrant as at least one of their parents. They feel prosperous because the countries that they came from were not. Hence, they have children.

    3. I agree with you that rising female workforce participation depresses wages for both men and women. Indeed I said that myself in this post:

      However, you go too far in suggesting that the only reason for rising female participation rates is flat wages. Women may simply want to work - after all, they are trained and educated to do so.

    4. Mary Williams Edgar20 March 2014 at 12:48

      So many reasons why women want to work. However it would appear that by simply being women with flexible working needs they are restricted to low paid "ghetto" employment areas, despite previous skills and qualifications.

    5. Mary Williams Edgar20 March 2014 at 12:58

      I should add that the "ghetto" employment, for e.g in caring, hospitality, retail, is in those areas "traditionally" associated with women's skills. Gender counts for so much more than education in the employability/wage rate stakes. We may in the past have been taught not to type in front of others for fear of prejudicing our career prospects but some "it's women's work" definitions it would seem we cannot avoid.

      "They" obviously means "we", by the way.

    6. Andrew S. Mooney20 March 2014 at 22:14

      "However, you go too far in suggesting that the only reason for rising female participation rates is flat wages. Women may simply want to work - after all, they are trained and educated to do so."

      That is a circular argument, in that consider how we have all manner of garbage in respect to educating females into "Careers in Engineering," "Careers in Law," and "Careers in Medicine" upon an ongoing basis, these things should be viewed with suspicion in that they are simply attempts to expand the workforce from amongst the already economically wealthy who can afford such degree courses. They are not initially wanting to be trained and educated to do so, rather, they are solicited to study these subjects by society and the various interest groups encouraging such for reasons I have outlined, namely wages.

      "Women may simply want to work - after all, they are trained and educated to do so."

      This suggests that you evidently don't know many Japanese women. They are a bit more sensible than white ones in that they don't want to work, they largely want to marry a well paid man, *so that they don't have to work.* This is something at is portrayed as selfishness but with perspective is not unreasonable, is it?

      This is reflected in the amusingly ludicrous expectations of how much money a man should earn for him to be a prospect for marriage in Japan. (Sankaku Complex is often NSFW and merits caution, but the items are not.)

      The reality:

      And the real motive:

      They don't want to work. Why do you?

      Respectfully, you haven't fully considered the idea that because they sooner or later will *feel* poor, that is why they go out to work, because the flat economy then does not provide them with the surplus of income that permits the elective spending that is a mark of a good life. Which to them, includes electing to have children. That is the only downside of such a position, and it explains their flat birthrate.

      (It is also why Japanese men, fed up with women who don't care how hard they work, uniquely prefer computer games to the tedium of a real, lippy wife. Do you blame them?)

      In Western countries, society indoctrinates women with the idea that they should go out and work. It encourages them to, for reasons that I previously wrote about in terms of competitive economic growth compared to other countries with alternate value systems. It is a somewhat 19th century attitude to consider how a man should be able to provide a family with a wage, but consider how consumer white goods have provided the wife with her leisure time to go out and earn a wage of her own, at first as an incentive but ultimately and inadvertently, as a *compulsion* due to dwindling wage returns that said white goods grant this free time on offer her, as this technology is expanded to everyone.

      But that is not entirely a good thing. Is it? Not from the perspective of male incomes, social mores and subsequent birth rates.

    7. Andrew,

      I don't pretend to be an expert on Japanese women. But with all due respect, you are not an expert on women of any nationality. You aren't one.

      Your opinion of the motivations of Japanese women is no more valid than mine, and your opinion of the motivations of Western women is of considerably less value than mine. What gives you, a man, the right to tell me, a Western woman, that I have been "indoctrinated"? How patronising.

      You think it is "sensible" for a woman to want to get married so she "doesn't have to work". But stay-at-home wives work - they just don't get paid for it. The work is tedious and physically demanding, the hours are long, the rewards are.....minuscule. Would you do it? No, you would not. Why should you assume that women want to do it, either?

      Actually the prospect of a life spent doing domestic chores does not appeal to me, or indeed to most women I know. I have talents and skills that I wish society to acknowledge by paying me for them. By what right do you tell me that I should not do that? On what grounds do you assert that YOUR skills and talents are to be used commercially, but MINE only within a domestic setting? What is the basis for your assertion that it is "sensible" for a woman to devote herself to drudgery?

      Far from "labour-saving devices" freeing up women to go out to work, the evidence is that the disappearance of servants and their replacement with "labour-saving devices" actually increased women's domestic workload, rather than reducing it.

      Japanese women do more domestic work than women in any other nation (second is Korea), taking on over 80% of all domestic chores. No wonder they don't go out to work. But that level of inequality within the home doesn't exactly encourage childbearing either. The Japanese birth rate has been falling for decades, but women's participation in the labour force has only just started to rise.

      I would be willing to bet that the main reason why Japanese women don't want to go out to work is that they can't get decent jobs or have any sort of career anyway because of male attitudes towards women in the workplace. But then of course you don't think that matters, do you?

      I should add that I am far from unusual in my views regarding the right of women to do paid work if they so choose. It is the attitude of men, particularly men who run businesses, towards women that needs to change, not the behaviour of women.

    8. *Cheers loudly* - well said Frances. Brilliant.

    9. Well argued in every respect except from the part when you said "What gives you, a man, the right to tell me, a Western woman, that I have been "indoctrinated"?" .

      I'm sure Chinese prisoners of war who had been converted into communists said similar things to their doctors. "What gives you the right, a doctor, to tell me I have been indoctrinated when you have never been in a prisoner of war camp". Just because he hasn't experienced doesn't mean he can't be right.

    10. But it would be reasonable to suppose that a doctor diagnosing a case of Stockholm syndrome would have the expertise to do so. It is, after all, his job. Andrew S. Mooney does not claim to be an expert on women's issues and has presented no credentials to show that he knows what he is talking about. He is arguing from his beliefs, not his knowledge.

  2. On a global level, it's obviously true that we need children. But the UK itself doesn't have to bear the cost of raising them, because (unlike Japan) it's a popular destination for immigration, so we can import them for free once some other country has paid for bringing them up.

  3. You're right to want the care of children to be supported. But is it really impracticable to devise a sensible system of means testing, so that support is given only to mothers who need it?

    1. Completely impracticable, pointless and demeaning.

  4. I share your concern about describing children as "a lifestyle choice". No great philosophical or economic justification, just that seem san odd way to talk about children. Without thinking about it much, I've vaguely assumed that, as you say, other people's children will directly or indirectly support me (childless) in my old age. I can't really do the maths on how much my taxes have contributed to other people's children (and I'm pretty relaxed about it anyway). Yes, we in the UK can substitute immigrants for children, but again, I'm uncomfortable with saying "lets's not worry about the plight of UK mothers because we can use immigrants." refer to "People who choose not to have children". I'm not sure what percentage of the childless have *chosen* not to have children. My guess is that it was not a choice for a lot of them. It's not the mirror image of those who choose to have children. Again, what follows from that I do not know.

    1. There are of course people who are unfortunately unable to have children, but I'd venture to suggest that there is a rather larger number who choose not to have children.

    2. I think Luke's point is that many natives feel they don't have a choice to have children - they can't afford them.

      That ties in with the lifestyle choice controversy. But it it real.

  5. Any evidence for that assertion? You could well be right, I just don't know. What if you're an ugly, poor, unskilled man? Is it a choice if you get rejected by women? If you're a woman who only gets approached by such men? Have you chosen not to have children?

    I am not just talking about infertility, but even if I was. look at the number of times the British monarch was not succeeded by a son or daughter. It is just not the case that 100% of people produce 2.1 kids, even when they have means and incentive to do so.

    I am trying to avoid getting into a big argument as I support free schooling and child benefit. And I don't like the phrase "lifestyle choice" any more than you do. It just seems wrong when you're talking about children.

    1. I think it is important to recognise that NOT having children can be just as much a "lifestyle choice" as having children. That's why I've talked about people "choosing" not to have children. I don't like arguing from anecdote, but I personally know a number of couples who have chosen not to have children.

    2. Fair. This may be partly a male/female issue. I suspect (but don't know) that current childcare and workplace rules may discourage women, more than men, from having children. I'm happy for that to be changed, even if it means me paying more tax. (Of course, I'll get some back through increased productivity/GDP etc).

      I come back to my point that I'm in favour of child support, childcare, free schooling etc. I just thought that referring to people "choosing" not to have children was at best insensitive.

  6. I think you're making a (fair) argument not that children are not a lifestyle choice, but that they are a lifestyle choice with positive externalities. The amount and sign of the externality does not make it less of a choice.

    If a beautiful person sunbathes on their balcony opposite my window, and I enjoy seeing them from my desk, there is a positive externality to their lifestyle choice of sunbathing on a balcony; and I will lose some enjoyment if they stop. Nevertheless, I can't argue they "need" to sunbathe on their balcony because I "need" the show.

    Globally whether you "grow" or "shrink" humanity is a species-level lifestyle choice too, we can do whatever we fancy. There's no god-given obligation to continue humanity on any particular scale, we could even collectively decide to stop now, and the last one switches off the light. In the "shrink" option, it's obviously correct that the retirees will have to take care of themselves, but why not, if they so wish?

    1. Umm. You are arguing that a species might vote for extinction? Surely this is taking the "deathwish" concept rather too far.

  7. Hoorah! Well said Frances. I have relatives who have decided not to have children and who constantly go on and on about how they're supporting MY children through the tax on their high earning and high spending on alcohol etc. It doesn't go down well when I point out that they, actually, are the parasites. Or at least will be some day.

    I would contend that this point could be extrapolated to student loans. It irritates me enormously that people speak of the benefit to the individual of having a degree, for which they should pay themselves, whilst failing to appreciate the SOCIAL benefit, for everyone, of people having degrees, and failing to appreciate the enormous economic cost of having every new generation starting work saddled with debt, and with very little surplus income (house prices also comes into this).

    Your thoughts?

    1. I agree re student loans. Tertiary education is a public good. It should be publicly funded.

  8. I seem to be an exception to the experience of other commenters, but I'm part of a voluntarily childless couple, with similar friends, and none of us seem to have a problem with "subsidising" children. They, like many other things, are a public good, so what is the problem.

    But the implementation is a typical English half-cock attempt, providing only partial support for an expensive and inadequately funded service. It's not as if the Tories understand (or even have the desire to understand) the economics of childcare. The previous "liberalisation" of the child-carer ratios was punted as a way to reduce cost, when any sensible person knew that the carer would just pocket the extra money.

    But I'd like to frame this as an equality issue. Childcare costs are so high and wages so low that it's fundamentally uneconomic for a lot of women (and it is largely women) to work anything like full time. This isn't a problem, of course, for a government that is seeking to press down on wages and is relaxed about increased job insecurity. But a decent job shouldn't just be the preserve of rich women. A comprehensive childcare solution in the Scandinavian or French model could provide opportunities for all adults, and a better start in life - and maybe less inequality - for all children.

    1. Hear! Hear! We are in the position where it is simply uneconomical for my wife to return to work until at least one, or possibly both, our children are in full time education, and there's no doubt in my mind that it's having an impact on her. It affects her skills, and her confidence. We try to look at different options for getting her to work but we simply can't afford it.

      It is definitely an equality issue.

  9. I do feel it is unfair on one wage families who look after their own children. The tax system already favours two wage families. The in work benefits system also favours families who pay someone else for childcare. Will we end up 'subsidising' other peoples children at the expense of our own?

    1. That's a result of targeting GDP as a metric. A professional childcare worker's labour contributes to GDP, while that of a housewife doesn't because it isn't part of the 'formal' economy.

  10. I agree. Chris seems to be suffering from the cognitive bias he accuses other people from having!

  11. People don't live on a island of Mingulay type economy of monetary detachment and reliance on human labour to maintain the critical mass of their life support systems.
    In the Industrial world machines do the work and not people , sure enough people are needed for social care & human contact but there is no shortage of euro roboten young people to care for their parents at present energy flux usage.

    We must try to get away from this particular British like meme of labour value operating outside the capital system.
    Its a artifact of the British capitalistic system which wishes to divorce people from their collective capital base.

  12. PS - the British baby boom is entirely a result of the extreme concentration of global and euro capital claims on these islands.
    The British global hinterland is stripped of value - the money flows into the financial centers and young people of child bearing age simply follow the money which resides in these centers of extraction so as to service the needs of these Mr Creosote like characters.
    This of course creates a local baby boom as 20 and 30 servant somethings do what they do.


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