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6 April 2017updated 07 Apr 2017 11:17am

Why is three children too many? The government’s hypocritical stance on benefits

The government is limiting child tax credits to two children. But its policies on the "right" number of children don't add up. 

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Does the government want pregnant women to have their babies or not? I only ask because things have got very confusing of late.

On the one hand, we see money raised by George Osborne’s so-called “tampon tax” going to the anti-choice charity Life, whose stated aim is to make abortion “a thing of the past”. On the other, new rules coming into force today mean payments for tax credits and Universal Credit will be limited to the first two children in a family.

So should you have that third baby or not? What if someone from Life suggests you should? Does the VAT you paid on Tampax make you more responsible or less?

These are questions that nobody wants to answer, not least because the government is not especially interested in what motivates a woman to carry a baby to term. The stated reasons change according to the policy being enforced. If you want to please the conservative right, it’s having a termination that’s selfish. If you want to blame the poor for being poor, it’s giving birth.

According to a Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman the current benefits structure is “unsustainable and not fair to the taxpayer and families who support themselves solely through work”. In one horrendously disingenuous sentence, it is implied that to be paid so little – or not at all – that one relies on tax credits must mean one is working less hard than others. “Work is the best route out of poverty,” we are informed, by someone who has clearly never heard of unpaid labour or zero-hours contracts.

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George Osborne, one of four sons born into enormous wealth, argues that those in receipt of tax credits should “face the same financial choices about having children” as those wonderful, virtuous people who “support themselves solely through work”. It’s not just a plainly ridiculous statement, it’s an unbearably callous one. Poor people never, ever “face the same financial choices” about anything.

“Incentivising” work by withdrawing additional support for those in need doesn’t help anyone out of poverty, and Osborne knows this. It’s the wealth equivalent of “not seeing colour” with regard to race. Osborne doesn’t see massive, rising pay disparities and unaffordable childcare so why should you? Doesn’t pointing them out make you “the real bigot”, sitting there denying poor people the chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps alone?

In all this I can see how the hypothetical third baby makes for an easy target. One can make the case that having any children at all is a selfish, environmentally ruinous choice. Then again, someone, somewhere has to produce the generation who’ll care for us in our old age and once you’ve had your first child, having a second can be (tenuously) justified on the basis that he or she will need a companion. By contrast, a third child can be seen as just plain indulgence (indulgence one might occasionally regret, given the amount of work involved, but indulgence all the same).

Why did I have a third baby? I can’t offer any moral justification for it. Because two felt a bit “standard mum”, whereas three was moving towards “proper hardcore mother”. Because I was about to turn 40 and experiencing existential angst over the prospect of no longer being able to reproduce. Because I’d wanted a third baby years ago and decided I wasn’t ready yet, then finally realised I’d never be ready, so might as well do it anyway.

Basically, there is no reason I can come up with which isn’t fundamentally selfish. What I can say is that as an able-bodied, middle-class woman who’s been fortunate enough never to experience a pregnancy that was unwanted, I have no more right to be selfish than a mother of three who has not been privileged in the ways I have. Why should she and her family be penalised? Limiting tax credits to two children is not about making things fairer; on the contrary, it’s about punishing the poor for being poor, all the better to suggest that poverty is a thing one brings upon oneself.

While the children of the wealthy are themselves more likely to become high earners – and hence to class themselves as self-sufficient – they are not of greater value to the world. If anything, they are far more likely to be over-valued in relation to their actual skills and talent. This seems to me a far greater problem than supporting families whose children deserve greater opportunities, not fewer. After all, it’s the reckless reproduction of the rich that lands us with men like George Osborne.