Cash for babies

Governments all over the world are developing birth incentives. Do these policies support families, or burden women?

Published January 12, 2007 12:20AM (EST)

Ugh. Governments -- be they tribes, nation states, or even cities -- have been trying to control family planning since the ancient Greeks instituted the idea of pederasty to delay the marrying age for men. Now, most of the nations of the world seem to be playing the population roulette, with developing nations like China implementing punitive population-control policies and many industrialized nations experimenting with fertility-encouragement programs.

But a new cash-for-birthing program coming from India's northeastern state of Meghalaya gives the idea of fertility control an extreme new twist.

Leaders of the Khasi tribe worried about being colonized by other ethnic groups in India have instituted a new policy to encourage not just population maintenance, but a freakishly huge baby boom. According to the BBC, Khasi mothers with more than 15 children are being given cash awards. The first prize went to Amelia Sohtun, who with 17 children received the equivalent of $360. Another two women, with 15 and 16 children respectively, each received about $337. As Nestingdkhar Nongdkhar, the deputy chairman of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, told the BBC: "These two women have been projected as role models and everybody here has understood why these rewards were given. We want our women to produce more and more children."

How many more? The tribal leaders want to double the population of 1 million people in the next 10 years. (By my rough calculations, if a quarter of the population is fertile women, that would mean every woman would need to have a minimum of four babies in the next ten years.)

Okay, aside from this being deplorable policy for women in a region of extreme poverty and high infant mortality (one of the prizewinners gave birth 25 times to get her 15 children), the policy also flies in the face of the Indian government's ongoing campaign "Hum Do, Hamare Do" (we are two, and we should have two children) to control its rising population.

In the context of poor women being encouraged to bear litters of children, the concept of a cash baby bonus looks pretty pernicious. But it's also increasingly become the norm in European nations and parts of Canada seeking to boost their native population. The Quebecois baby bonuses(which wound up being around $500 for the first child, $1,000 for the second and $8,000 for every child after that) were canceled in 1997 after policymakers decided the endeavor was a "lamentable failure." Since then, though, Quebec has developed subsidized daycare and a maternity-leave program that puts the rest of Canada to shame. Last week the Associated Press reported on (and we noted) Germany's fledgling baby-incentive program, which gives generous parental leave for parents with babies born after Jan. 1st of this year.

In the end, state intervention into family planning can cut both ways. In prosperous countries, these policies don't look cruel so much as supportive (provided they offer incentives for a normal number of births). In a place where women may struggle to feed even one child, encouraging more much less 15 looks like nothing less than misogyny.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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