Jeremy Corbyn is back in the news, though for admirable and respectable reasons this time. In a speech to the Commons on Tuesday, Corbyn argued that the current two-child limit to parental support benefits is immoral, specifically immoral to the 3rd, 4th or 5th child born to that parent, and instead it’s time “to scrap the two-child limit on benefits, and create a social security system that treats people with dignity, care and respect.”
It is quite common for socialists to claim that “it’s time” for the measures they propose, thus implying it has been a deliberate, cruel choice thus far to not pursue the measures, rather than caused by any practical limits. Nonetheless, stopped clocks and all that, and Corbyn has actually managed to touch on a problem quite serious in the British polity: we have an aging population and a declining birth rate, a combination which is, put nicely, a demographic time-bomb.
It was not that long ago that a Tory minister received quite substantial criticism for proposing a pro-natalist policy, which must of course raise eyebrows as to why Corbyn is being lauded for proposing something so similar. I think we can chalk that one up to a mistaken belief that the unnamed minister was attempting to “engineer” a birth rate change whilst Corbyn just wants to support the children born anyway.
Corbyn is, fundamentally, correct. The British state needs to do more to support children, but the focus should be on families, rather than children alone. By focusing on “children”, Corbyn is – unintentionally, I think we need to admit – neglecting the role parents play in both the creation and support of children. An avalanche of studies show the advantage children experience when both of their biological parents are involved in their childhood. Most importantly, the family is the finest form of welfare available in the world, and thinking the state can ever do more than supplement that welfare is misguided at best.
Since Corbyn has wandered into normative questions, we also need to clarify what is actually “immoral” in his eyes. Is it that further children would not get any support from the state? Perhaps, but then the immorality is not caused by the state, it is caused by nature as a rule and ameliorated by the state as an exception. Is it that, in providing support for the first two children but not any subsequent children? Maybe, but it is a dubious claim that state welfare is an expression of moral worth, though I appreciate I am battling with a socialist on this.
Moreover, this might be a typical “nasty party” attitude to take, but why does Corbyn stop at the 5th child? Why not make the point regarding the 10th, or 20th child? Pro-natalist policies are good, when they support the lives of children already in the world, but if we are not careful we can generate a trap in which it pays to have children, and not work. Incentivising parents to have more children when it is the state supporting them and not their own employment is risky business.
What it should be doing instead is less direct. Instead, the British state needs to foster an environment that is more supportive of families, both in the material and in the attitudinal sense, which I explored in a recent paper with the think tank Civitas. What is an unfortunate truth of this situation is that birth rates are almost uniformly a symptom of the social environment, with a positive correlation between economic development and falling birth rates. As far as I know, no developed nation has successfully broken this link, but that does not mean it cannot be done.
If the economic development of a nation has a bearing on birth rates, but birth rates are not the primary concern of national governments in their economic policies, then we cannot rely on the economic argument only, but there is still the possibility that economic policies could be shaped around families more. For one, as the Tory minister suggested, reforming the tax system to offer tax breaks in proportion to children (in both number and age) is an obvious option. The fact that Hungary has pursued such policies suggests it is possible, so the political will is all that stands in the way.
Inevitably, we need to think about housing. Property offers the most secure physical environment for parents to raise children in, especially as they make the transition from tenants to owner-occupiers, with which comes a greater degree of security. As has become common to remark on, millennials and Generation Z are facing crises of home-ownership, and without the security that can offer, families will start later and later, which not only has an effect on birth rates, but will mean those children born will be born into a world of insecurity.
Corbyn is right that the British state needs to support children more, but he has missed the key point: the British state is not hospitable to families, and needs to be restructured to be so.