Why Latter-day Saints (Or Anyone Else) Should Not Feel Bad about Having Kids on Government Assistance

When I was in graduate school with a young family my wife and I went on government assistance. We didn’t have a car so I had to fill our stroller up with groceries every third day. Of course, one particularly cold winter our stroller got a flat and we couldn’t fix it, so I had to go out in face-numbing West Philadelphia weather and run multiple shopping laps back and forth with a backpack so that I could make it back in time for class. Those were tough times (somewhat obviated when we had our rent paid one month by an anonymous donor who left the message “love one another”). Even though we were in a low income area of West Philadelphia, and a lot of people were on government assistance, we still got the awkward stares when the cashier tried to figure out our WIC checks while the line stacked up behind us. (Thankfully I still had some of the “ignore the awkward stares” calluses left over from my mission.)

For us the decision to have children was not really affected by whether or not they would require government assistance, but we ran into our fair share of people who were torn over the dilemma of whether to have children that they could not afford. In our particular circles, the people who had an issue with having kids on government assistance fell into two groups: the first were “bro” libertarian types (usually childless, unattached males), who honestly wondered why they should pay for other people’s children’s education. However, we also knew a lot of members who felt a Latter-day Saint hesitancy to accept government assistance because they felt pressure to completely provide for their own. 

The ethical and theological validity of this position aside, it does not make sense mathematically to avoid having children because of a concern about being a burden on society, since in the final balance sheet those who have children are subsidizing those who do not have children. The “bro” sitting their mom’s basement playing video games is the one freeriding off of others, not the single mother sorting through her WIC checks. 

The reason is intergenerational transfers of wealth. In the US we provide for old people by taxing younger workers. Those younger workers don’t just grow on trees, they come from the sleepless nights, stretch marks, anxieties, medical bills, and food budgets of people who choose to have children. The Godfather of “how do countries pay for old people” research is Ron Lee at Berkeley (one my academic grandfathers–the adviser to a member of my dissertation committee). He found that, even taking into account government assistance, the cost of public education, and the like, each average child adds $217,000 dollars to the national balance sheet. If we wanted to be true libertarians about it, each single parent or set of parents should be paid $8,100 per year per child they have over the age of 18 to make things even. So don’t feel guilty about your WIC cheese, there is no way that your child will eat enough of it to make them an overall cost on society. Paying for vaccines and formula is cheap, paying for old people ailments is what is expensive; the “bros” will have their medical treatments funded by the children whose education they complained about paying for, and Latter-day Saints (or anyone) should not let the noble sentiment of wanting to provide for their own get in the way of their desires for children. 

This post might seem a bit orthogonal to Latter-day Saint theme of Times and Seasons, but I’ve seen this attitude enough in the Latter-day Saint community, and often with a Latter-day Saint spin, that I thought it would be worth addressing. The “have children” Latter-day Saint cultural imperative should trump the “be able to provide for your own” Latter-day Saint cultural imperative. Of course there are a lot of other variables in the “how many kids to have” equation, but that particular concern does not make sense theologically (in my opinion) or mathematically (as a statement of fact).


17 comments for “Why Latter-day Saints (Or Anyone Else) Should Not Feel Bad about Having Kids on Government Assistance

  1. I enjoyed this post. It brought back a lot of memories about the lean early years my wife and I experienced.

    For what it is worth, the “Mormon cultural drumbeats” to avoid government assistance AND have a lot of children seem to have waned over the years. Ezra Taft Benson used to admonish Church members to not accept food stamps. I might stand corrected, but that has not been heard in General Conference for a long time. I am aware of many Bishops who have counseled members to get available government assistance. I would do whatever it took, to take care of my children.

    Likewise with having children. The current edition of the handbook of Instructions makes clear that the question of having children (and when and how many) is a personal decision that is no one else’s business. I am sure that there are a few “extreme natalists” left, but 47 years in the Church (I was baptized in 1974 at the age of 22) have made it clear to me that “average” LDS families are smaller.

  2. Great piece tho I will confess to having looked up “orthogonal.” Thx for that word! Agree the Brethren have backed off Bensonian rightwing lunacy in several areas, including govt assistance, and that’s a good thing. I look forward to further progress, esp full inclusion of females in upper-echelon decision making, and hope that one day soon the Brethren figure out what homosexuality is. Also, I’d like to use “Mormon” again as cultural marker, Satan or no Satan.

  3. The thing I take exception with is people who intentionally quit jobs so Medicaid will pay for childbirth. I worked for a time at a pedatrician’s office and heard this more than once. Mind you, that was in Provo.
    Certainly there is a whole other discussion on medical costs/affordability, but in the current state of things if people are able to work I feel they should.

  4. I wonder how far away our West Philadelphia place was from yours, geographically—we lived at 48th and Pine while my husband was in graduate school. in terms of time, we were there around 1990. We had a one-year-old that was my full-time job, and though we didn’t have public assistance for groceries, our healthcare coverage was provided for us, which was a great boon. I have been speculating lately about whether the experience of being able to go get a no-cost-to-us COVID test when needed, and the experience of having vaccines available also at no cost, will influence the way people feel about how healthcare must be paid for. All of us joining together to make sure people get necessary healthcare makes much better economic sense than just trying to look away while some among us go under due to medical debt, or go physically underground because they didn’t get the care they needed and are no longer with us.

  5. @Lori: We were at 47th and Pine! We joked that things change so abruptly in Philadelphia that 47th and Pine was totally fine, but 48th felt unsafe. Now the UPenn police patrol up to 45th or so, so it was probably much more difficult in your day.

    I agree completely on the medical issue. Post-Philadelphia we had some dark experiences stemming from not being covered that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, so I’m very left on the universal coverage issue, especially for children. Plus, as noted, the kind of preventative coverage children need (vaccines, teeth cleanings, etc.) is a drop in the bucket financially compared to an 80-year old’s 5th heart surgery.

  6. Stephen, thanks for the post, which isn’t off-topic at all. It used to be a regular topic of controversy around these parts. My own contribution was here. I continue to be in favor of kids, WIC and Medicaid.

  7. Great post, Stephen. I was going to comment that this topic was a hot and contentious one, many years ago, but Jonathan and Ivan have both beat me to it. Take the time to check out those old posts and their many comments, though; they are indicative, perhaps, of how much what we used to call the Bloggernacle has changed in the past 15 years, most assuredly including myself.

  8. Wow, that’s a lot of comments in those earlier posts! Those must have been quite heady days in the early bloggernacle.

  9. Stephen, the good parts were pretty good, in the same way that people say MySpace and LiveJournal were better than Facebook and Twitter. This blog had a wider range of bloggers and more active exchange between them in the comments. It also helped that there were functioning blog aggregators so it was easier to keep track of what was going on over the horizon.

  10. Back in the day, blogs were social media. The rise of facebook, etc. really killed off a lot of the blog traffic/interaction.

  11. Ninevah, the problem is what to do if your work doesn’t cover childbirth, or covers it but not enough to make it affordable. And means-testing makes it so if you earn too much money by working, then you don’t qualify for Medicaid.
    The system as it’s set up right now, encourages people to be more reliant on welfare for longer bc the means testing makes it impossible to work and asset limits make it impossible to save money so you can make it on your own one day.
    From the post, it looks like our nation would just be better off paying the hospital bills for people who want to have children, since it’s an investment that will pay off in the future.

  12. A few points: 1) back in my day (I’m 62) women worked to put their husbands through school. No one I knew in the Mormon basin saved money to put their kids through school because a) only the men were expected to finish their degrees and b) the wife worked the husband’s way through college. The thought of accepting public assistance as a student, or a student family. was unheard of. Why can’t both spouses work, or one study and the other work? 2) I agree that children are needed as future workers to pay our Social Security and Medicare, plus people want to raise kids! But is it so wrong to plan, to defer childbearing until financial circumstances are easier? 3) Please don’t pick on the elderly as those lapping in the public health care trough. Once you’ve cared for an aging parent you understand how their medical needs gather momentum and why the last year of life becomes so expensive. What are you supposed to do when you have circulation problems or your eyesight declines? Just go home and die? We need to do right by our children but society is also judged by how well we care for the elderly.

  13. Elizabeth, since our prophets and apostles have counseled against deferring children until material comfort has been achieved, I’m going to say yes, it is actually wrong. Also, misguided, because the assumption that financial stability will be achieved shortly after graduation is no longer true. It might be achieved at 25, or 35, or 45, or 55, or never; there are no sure things anymore except inheriting wealth. Google “old economy Steve” for relevant citations. Also, not to be indelicate, but deferring childbearing doesn’t always work as planned for a variety of reasons.

  14. “Elizabeth, since our prophets and apostles have counseled against deferring children until material comfort has been achieved, I’m going to say yes, it is actually wrong.”

    And I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s NOT wrong. So there. But hey, I’m just some guy on the internet. Oh wait, so are you!

    Dude, get out of people’s bedrooms. That’s just creepy.

  15. In response to Jonathan Green, yes, I know, birth control sometimes fails — many couples have “oops” babies. But I take issue with your citing of LDS apostles and prophets as to why couples can’t or won’t wait to accumulate some financial cushion shouldn’t apply to LDS couples where one spouse (usually the husband) is in grad school using welfare. State governments doling out food stamps because of the dictates of religious leaders is a clear violation of church and state.

    I’m finding this all mind-blowing. Recently the SLT had an article reporting that Utah Workforce Services encouraged applicants to go to the LDS Church for assistance, whether or not they were members in good standing or even LDS. Yet it’s OK for LDS married w/children grad students to use food stamps, Medicaid, etc. because their leaders told them that waiting for “material comfort” was wrong. And for the record, I know that not all LDS people live in Utah — it’s just that this is where I live and where I’ve observed this phenomenon.

  16. I wouldn’t say it’s wrong for people to wait until they are financially secure before having children, but it is definitely impractical where I live on the Wasatch front.

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