Octomom and welfare ideology

Of course the Octomom coverage is overblown, but not just in the sense the media overblows things all the time. The interest in Suleman’s story has long ceased to share anything in common with the interest surrounding previous multiple births, say, those profiled in the TLC series John and Kate Plus 8. Most everything said about Suleman is sharply negative or accompanied by something negative.

I’ve tried to get a handle on what precisely this woman has done to garner such criticism. I am told she was wrong to take on more children than she could care for properly. Suleman elected to have eight embryos implanted while she already had six birth children. People seem especially upset that the six are “already on welfare.” However, if the issue is simply that these children will not be cared for, this is largely irrelevant. The six are cared for by way of welfare, and ostensibly so will the new eight—right? One can complain about the “taxpayer burden” or some such, but this is an entirely separate matter from the provision of the children.

Nadya Suleman: The poor man's Angelina Jolie

Nadya Suleman: Subject of much hype

(Of course, this only speaks to the financial side of “care.” There is also the fear that Suleman’s energies and “face time” will be stretched to the point of inevitable child neglect. But here the ideology of The Family is at work. Yes, money aside, one parent is hardly enough for fourteen kids. But neither are two parents enough for one child. That a child should have to bypass a rich world of human resources to fundamentally identify with at most two persons within it is simply pathological. Granted, the family unit is the richest reproductive structure available to most of us—one does what one can. But let us not measure Ms. Suleman against some alternative nuclear “ideal.”)

And what of that taxpayer burden? So we each have to pay $.000000000001 (or whatever) more a year for the Suleman family? Should anyone really give a shit? (A newsworthy shit?) It isn’t as though Suleman’s story is illustrative of some epidemic; her case is unique. Plus, in economic terms, simple population growth pays off for the general economy and the federal budget alike; in time, Suleman’s children will contribute more than enough to offset any meager welfare payments they consume now. Taxpayers will pay more up front for this, but there is no evidence they will pay out in any net sense over time. (Not that I would care much if they did.)

Digging deeper

Criticism of Suleman brings American welfare ideology into sharper relief.

It is clear her critics view the welfare burden as a kind of penalty: For her poor judgment, the taxpayers are “stuck with” a bill. But why is this bill seen as a penalty, rather than simple spending? By comparison, nobody views themselves as “penalized” for the “mistake” of eating out when the waiter brings the ticket.

More to the case, we don’t say that the “conventional” parent who does not take welfare is “penalized” with diaper, clothes, etc. bills for giving birth. We consider these expenditures like any other.

So what makes Suleman’s case (or, welfare) different? Some will argue that she, and not the taxpayers, made the choice to procreate, therefore the responsibility for care is hers. But this doesn’t work. Some parents have unplanned (“unchosen”) pregnancies; the critics I have in mind would oppose welfare even for them. And the fact that we don’t view the non-welfare parent above as “penalized” has nothing to do with whether she chose the pregnancy. (Maybe she did; maybe she didn’t.) So “choosing” isn’t really the issue here: “Not choosing” gets society off the hook, allegedly, but never birth parents.

Critics could respond that the “conventional” parents didn’t take adequate precautions against the possibility of pregnancy; in leaving themselves open to chance, they “chose” it, and the responsibility, indirectly. But again, this doesn’t work: If the parents didn’t take sufficient precautions, then neither did society. There is always more both could have done to have prevented unwanted pregnancy. Saying ‘it isn’t society’s job to do this’ just begs the question that “Who chose?” was supposed to answer in the first place.

That is: If the “choosing party” is always responsible for care; and if we accept the idea of indirect “choice” through prevention-failure—It follows that, at best, the parents and society have a joint responsibility for care.

* * *

The reigning welfare ideology says “be responsible for your own.” But there is no clear standard by which we can define a child as her parent’s “own” which does not also make her society’s “own” (to whatever degree). She is at once a member of both groups. On the face of it, there is no more warrant for viewing public assistance as “coercive” to taxpayers than to for viewing parents as coerced for being made to feed and transport their biological children. If another truth lies under that “face,” we’ll need a hell of a lot more argument from the “ideologists” to show it.

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