Benefits should not alter rights

Parents should be able to choose how to raise their children except in clear cases of abuse, writes Emily Keddell.

Gosh, what a bad beneficiary I was. My 3-year-olds were not in 15-hours daycare. None of my three little boys were vaccinated. My youngest never went to his wellchild checks beyond 12 months.

I figured I knew well enough myself by No 3 what my son was supposed to be doing and when. I could bolster my argument for parental free choice with the fact that at that time I had a master's degree, and had been employed "BC" (before children) in various roles as a social worker and parent educator.

I could support the argument that these decisions were best made by myself and my children's father, and no-one else, with the fact that the aforementioned father is the deputy principal of a primary school and well aware of the needs of young children.

These factors could be used to show it was well within the reach of our capacities to decide for ourselves what was in our children's best interests, and somewhat naively now it seems, we expected the State to respect that right.

I could argue that because some beneficiaries have a good education and backgrounds we shouldn't "tar all with the same brush" and assume their inability to decide these basic aspects of their children's lives. But this would be a poor argument. It relies on people thinking "gosh, that could be me".

The rights of parents to decide on their children's education and health care should not rest on their education qualifications or class. Beneficiaries are a heterogeneous group of people from a range of backgrounds. Some will be like you. So those arguments, while useful in challenging stereotypes of beneficiaries, are not useful in challenging the fundamental affront to personal and parental freedom that the new criteria for benefit receipt rest upon.

All should have the right to decide important aspects of their children's upbringing, and any limiting of those rights for the common good should apply to all, not only some.

Intervention in parenting decisions should only be made in the face of clear and direct harm to children, and then only following careful investigation on a case-by-case basis and decided by a judge. This is the current legal requirement for removing the ordinary powers of guardianship and custody bestowed at birth upon mothers and many fathers. As it should be. This process rests on the now-threatened concept that parents have the right to choose how to raise their children except in clear cases of abuse.

But this is not just a matter of removing parental choice - if so, these criteria would be imposed on everyone.

No, this limiting of choice is only directed at a single group of parents being paid by the State: beneficiaries; with the threat of benefit cuts to back it up.

It is this targeting, and the consequences of non-compliance, that makes the removal of choice so perverse. After all, one can make many arguments for the universal limiting of choice if the greater good benefits, but if it really is a "greater good", then it should apply to everyone, not just beneficiaries, and not be enforced with income withdrawal. This linking of so-called "social obligations" with income is a punitive social control mechanism that relies on what could be called a behavioural-rational theory of behaviour - that is, the best way to motivate people is to threaten punishment and any rational person would therefore comply.

Implicit in this targeting are the underlying assumptions that: all parents on a benefit (and this really means mostly women on the DPB) are incapable of making good choices for their children; that the obligations represent what is best for all children, in every circumstance; that the children of beneficiaries are better served by formal early childhood education than in their own homes; and that despite no evidence of harm or abuse, those parents should relinquish control of parental choice because the government knows best.

Targeting thus singles out a particular sector of the population, for no apparent good reason (nowhere can I find the actual numbers of 3 and 4-year-old children of beneficiaries currently not in ECE/immunised/enrolled compared with the rest of the population) for a level of coercion previously unseen in this country.

What's even worse is that Paula Bennett employs the language of "vulnerability" to justify it, stating this move was necessary due to these children being the "most vulnerable", without doing anything to address the economic inequalities causing those very vulnerabilities.

This new system will likely create even more "vulnerability" as some parents will inevitably end up with cut benefits.

I could finish by pointing out my children's general good health, reasonable educational and sporting achievements. Somehow they managed to turn out OK so far. Fingers crossed.

But we should not be moved by that argument. Instead we should recognise that even those beneficiaries with few education qualifications, who may never read a newspaper opinion piece, deserve the right to exercise parental choice in the ways they raise their children just as much as I, and this should not be linked with their right to State support when needed. Their children, as much as mine, are our country's future citizens. I want them looked after well. I want parents' rights to be as protected as mine. I want them to feel as much a part of this country as I do.

Linking income support with social obligations is not the way to ensure any of these things. It is a threat to a cohesive, civil and humane society, and to human rights, and in fact makes social obligations antisocial.

Emily Keddell is a lecturer in the department of sociology, gender and social work at the University of Otago.


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