James from The Why? Movement (nice name!) asked:
“Is it ethical for me to start a family with the knowledge that I do not have a full-time job (i.e. one that has health benefits) at the moment, but the hope that I will by the time my child is born?”
In the United States, having children has moved from an expectation, to a question of rights, to a matter of privilege. For much of human history, married couples were expected to have babies and to have them quickly. If they didn’t, it was usually because one of the two were physically unable. But these days, we have shifted from asking when people will have kids to asking whether they should be allowed to. James is asking the latter.
There were lots of reasons for these changes: developments in birth control, changes in the status of women, lower mortality rates of children, a more sophisticated understanding of what marriage is, and the advent of child protection organizations that can take children away from unfit parents, are but a few. But three philosophical shifts are particularly important.
The first is that we now recognize children as people with rights in themselves, people who require special ethical consideration. Gone are the days when 10-year-olds left home for apprenticeships or when factories were filled with cheap child labor. (Well, mostly gone, anyway.) Children are now to be protected and educated, above all else. They need healthy and qualified advocates.
The second philosophical shift is that, in much of the world, children have been liberated from parental care responsibilities. Economic options like pensions, Social Security, and Medicare, combined with the fairly recent invention of old-age homes, have relinquished children from living with, and tending to, their elders. Multi-generational households are significantly less common than they were. In other words, parents don’t need children in the same way that they used to.
The third shift, particularly in the United Sates, is that many people believe that we should punish the poor simply for being poor, that people deserve their poverty because they didn’t try hard enough. Many have come to believe that the wealthy have earned their money without government or social assistance, and that those who did not are simply lesser people. I find this attitude baffling and empirically false, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, the new dominant attitude is that the poor have failed and, as a result, they shouldn’t be allowed to take anyone else down with them.
Notice that this point of view makes it look like it cares for children first. It asks why anyone would bring a starving child into the world, if all the kids do after they are born is suffer. But the fact of the matter is that almost every child in history has grown up poor, and almost all of us, even if we come from means, have been uncomfortable at times. Nevertheless, virtually every child ends-up being glad that he or she were born, and most children have fond memories, even if they are interspersed with pain. In fact, my bet is that those who have genuinely horrible stories to tell, have them, for the most part, because their parents were psychologically unhealthy, that they were abusive, or addicts, or mentally unstable. Poverty may have exacerbated these problems, but they were not the main cause. (Obviously, children in war-torn countries suffer in other ways, but James isn’t asking about them.)
Now, I’m not an idiot and I know that kids in poverty struggle (see a British perspective and an American one). I do not mean, in any way, to minimize the difficulties poverty causes. But in most developed countries, there are government and social programs to assist when things get tough. They are often inadequate, bureaucratic, and under constant attack, but they are there, and they can be used. Competent and caring parents can access these resources, although they themselves may need help when the bureaucracy is overwhelming. In other words, child poverty is a political problem with a political solution, not a private concern for a single set of parents.
At this point, many people will object that a person without a job is burdening others by having children, that it is unethical to add another mouth to the government payroll. To properly respond to this, I’d have to offer a full-fledged political theory, which I can’t do here. I’ll simply say that taxes aren’t theft and helping people is what the government does.
The objection that poor kids become a public burden is neither about the kids nor the parents, but about unrelated people. What it really suggests, is that it is wrong to have a children if the kids inconvenience others. But if this were true, it would also be unethical to have kids if they cost anyone else any money at all, or if they cry on an airplane, or if they make the lines at Disneyland longer. Obviously, these positions are nonsense.
It is worth noting that James writes as if he will be getting a job soon. This is never certain, of course. We can’t tell the future. But his question suggests that his unemployment (or underemployment) is temporary, making the decision even easier. Why avoid having children because of a short-term problem?
The fact of the matter is that I have been writing as if being unemployed is the same as being poor, and it need not be, although it is usually a good indicator. Some unemployed people can pay the bills for a while, and many poor people have more than one job. Ultimately, we have to decide what it means to be poor and what counts as necessities. (A refrigerator is a necessity, but a television is not.) James’s question leads to many others. But what he is asking boils down to “should I have kids if I don’t have enough money to care for them properly,” and that, in the end, is about poverty.
We must assume that things can get better, and frankly, having kids is one way to do this. I love my daughter. My life is immeasurably improved because she is in it, and her existence outweighs any economic cost. I’d rather be rich than poor, but I’d rather be poor with her than rich without her. James, ultimately your question is framed purely economically, but asking whether to have children is not an economic question. It is about much more.
Are you reasonably psychologically healthy? Will you love your child and put his or her needs first? Will you care and advocate for your child whenever necessary? Will you make sure he or she gets a good education and learns to be an ethical person? If so, go ahead and have kids.
Certainly, you should feel free to strategize. If waiting to have kids allows you to save, or move to a better circumstance, then it may be worth doing so. But these are pragmatic plans and not moral requirements. You asked if it is ethical to have kids when you don’t have a job; the answer is yes. Feel free to name one of them after me.
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