State Subsidy of Children

Cambridge 2000 memos

March 2001

People with children are a special interest group. As with most special interest groups people who are members think that people who are not members should subsidise their activity, and can think of dozens of reasons why this should be the case, here mainly quoting that "children are our future", conveniently forgetting that "pensioners are our past" and those who have to pay for all of this State subsidised activity are the "present". What really distinguishes this special interest group from most others is that most people are members for much of their lives, and in a democracy the majority can impose on the minority as they see fit.

In the UK the pro-child-subsidy lobby (usually mislabelled as the pro-family lobby) has been gaining strength, probably because there are more and more women at the top of many professions (in particular politics) and many of these women conveniently believe it is up to the State to make sure they can do this and raise a family at the same time. Of course the husbands of these women are generally happy to support the cause since they will benefit as well. Everybody wants a handout, it's just that this particular one is supposed to be virtuous.

In most western countries the raising of children has been heavily subsidised for many decades because State education is free. This is conveniently never mentioned by the pro-child-subsidy lobby, perhaps because it is such a large subsidy or perhaps because it is a subsidy which benefits the child more than the parent or perhaps because it has been around for so long nobody thinks about it.

Free education (and the child allowance, etc.) is not enough for the pro-child-subsidy lobby, but no subsidy is ever large enough for those who benefit. What is currently on the agenda is (paid) maternity and paternity leave, both at the time of birth and later. Maternity leave at the time of birth makes sense, in as much as this is a time of incapacity. But the State should pay for the cost directly and not impose any direct cost on individual companies (although companies and citizens will pay the cost indirectly). The question of what cost and for how long is another matter. Should a corporate lawyer be paid 3000 pounds per week to stay at home for six months being a mother?

A next natural, and plausible, step is for parents to be paid full-time by the State (either directly or indirectly) just to be parents. After all being a parent is supposed to be a job so why not get paid for it like any other job. Unfortunately this job is voluntary, unskilled and there is no requirement that a parent do a reasonable job. Perhaps the minimum wage (at best) should be applied, but for how many hours per week? Parents would undoubtedly argue they have a 24 hour a day job, but many work outside the home and even for those stuck at home the amount of time actually attending to children would inevitably be a lot less.

If parents really want to get paid for the job then perhaps the State should audit how much time they actually spend with their children (so people who work long hours in their other profession would get very little or nothing) and even more importantly how well they do as parents, which is the point of the exercise after all. This is the nightmare scenario, with politicians and civil servants interfering even more in the life of the nation than they do already, but it is a natural consequence of the State paying for anything. Needless to say the rich will be deemed to be good parents and the poor bad parents. And people without children will continue to write the cheques.

If people who look after children are paid by the State then why not people who look after the elderly (or name your favourite other worthy activity)?

Cambridge 2000 memos