Too Many Children Having Children!

You get more flies with honey. And you can get fewer babies, too.

CRAP: The conventional view, typified by Congressional welfare-reduction proposals is, more or less, If a woman on welfare has more kids, cut off her welfare payments. Punish the woman for the awful sin of having another child. Cut 'em off, no more benefits. That will deter them from having more poor, unwanted children.

Alternative: Reward women for not having more kids. Or for not having any kids at all before a certain age. Or not without a stable partner. And so forth.

Punishing behavior you want to discourage does not work well. Reward the behavior you want to encourage. Thank you, Prof. Skinner. Ask any animal trainer. People aren't very different. We respond well, too, to positive reinforcement.

A related example is a program that was tried a few years ago. A wealthy American started a program to pay young girls to remain virgin until they were married. The reward in this case was a large sum of money, some thousands of dollars as I recall, that could be used for educational expenses for instance. Of course, the philanthropist was thoroughly excoriated by social workers and the press. Paying someone not to have sex was seen as an unreasonable denial of human rights. (I note that paying someone to have sex, legal or otherwise, is not seen as a violation of rights, but logic rarely applies in these cases.) I couldn't at the time figure out why. I still can't, really, but I think that it was the incredible novelty of the idea that shocked people.

The idea was, perhaps, a bit extreme, and it is not directly applicable to this case. If we want young women not to have children in some circumstances, then let's reward precisely that behavior and not pick nits about how they accomplish it. If it is population and welfare control that we are concerned about, then we don't really care if they're not having kids because they're not having sex or because they're having sex safely and carefully.

Let's say we want young women not to have children before age, say, twenty. Okay, pay a bounty to any girl that makes it to her twentieth birthday without having a child. (I am informed by doctors that this can be determined reliably.) I hear a cry, But do you know how much that would cost? This is a joke, right? A one-time bounty of a few thousand dollars is tiny by comparison with the cost of caring for a child on welfare for years and years. What is the balance between the total number of twenty-year-old females and the total number of children supported by public assistance who were born to females under twenty? If there are many, many children who are supported by public assistance for many years, then the one-time bounty is a bargain for anyone whose behavior is changed. If there are only a few children, then why is this such a hot political issue at all?

Well, we really don't want to pay out a few hundred million dollars to all those females who never intended to have children until after that age, like all the ones who want to get through college. The proportion of under-20 females who have children is a small part of the overall population. Okay, let's narrow the group that is eligible for the bounty. For instance, if you and your children, if any, are already on public assistance, then your benefits for next year will go up if you don't have another child. If you take control of your life, you can have a better life. (Use the extra benefits to buy condoms, if necessary. :-)

There is a workable plan lurking in this idea, somewhere. We just have to find the right rules and the right boundaries, and we have to have the political will to brave the inkstorm. If the rewards are large enough, you can change people's behavior.

Copyright (C) 1995,1996 by Richard Landau. All rights reserved. Comments and flames to the author. "Why use rational argument when there's a flame-thrower handy?" Hey, go ahead. I didn't exactly leave the gloves on when I wrote this. Richard Landau (home page) ( using that sterling tool, HTML Author. Last modified 96/02/01.