Friday, April 16, 2010

Welfare & Big Families - Fraud?

They're the family with the Mercedes in the drive getting £42,000 a year in benefits. Scroungers?
By Amanda Platell
16th April 2010
The crack of dawn and my curious cabbie asks where I'm off to so early.
To meet the family of nine - with another baby on the way - who shocked the nation this week when it was revealed they were receiving £42,000 in benefits each year - and can afford to run two cars, a Mercedes station wagon and a people carrier.
'Oh, the benefit scroungers,' says the cabbie. 'It's disgusting.' But the estate where they live is anything but, set in the countryside on the edges of the town of Llangefni on the Isle of Anglesey.
The Davey family claim £42,000 a year in welfare benefits
The streets are made up of orderly, clean, mostly semi-detached houses, the gardens bearing the first flowers of spring.
The Daveys' home is at the end of a cul-de-sac, their infamous Mercedes parked outside.
On the walkway up to the front door there are the discarded toys of a large, young family and a pile of small children's bikes left for so long the grass has grown right through the spokes.
Inside, red-headed children are glued to the giant TV screen, oblivious to the clutter around them. 'All I ever wanted was to be a mum.
‘I'd like to have more kids if I could,' says heavily-pregnant Claire, 29, proudly introducing her brood.
Neither Claire nor Peter Davey have a job - she's never been employed, while her 35-year-old husband gave up his post in administration nine years ago and hasn't worked since.
And now they want somewhere bigger to live than their state-provided semi to home their expanding family - the seven children they already have and the one that will arrive in nine weeks.
Understandably, their story has provoked outrage since it appeared in a magazine last week.
At a time of crippling national debt it gave a startling insight into the growing chasm between the working and the workshy; between those who want to work for a living and those who think the world owes them a living. And a comfortable living, at that.
David Cameron argued again this week that we need to reward people who take responsibility for themselves and their families, take care of those who can't, and deal with people who are capable of looking after themselves, but refuse to.
In short, he said, we must end the culture of entitlement and welfare dependency.
Entitlement is, ironically, one of Claire's favourite words. It trips off her tongue with frequent ease as she pushes back strands of dyed blonde hair.
I ask her why she thinks we the taxpayers should support her and her growing brood, and she replies: 'The law says we're entitled to it. That's the law. It's not what we say, it's what the Government says. We're entitled.'
For Claire, there's no question of embarrassment, though her husband hastily adds: 'There is a sense of shame from not working.'
‘There's always been a stigma about being on benefits.'
Just not enough of a stigma, it seems, to prevent them from enjoying the 42 in flatscreen television with Sky TV that graces their living room, along with a Wii computer games console and three Nintendo DS machines. Or to persuade Peter to stop fathering more children and get a job instead.
In a recession, no one condemns the genuine unemployed. But Peter quit his job as an administrator in credit protection insurance nine years ago, at the height of the boom, after realising the family would be better off living off the State.
Currently, they receive £815-a-week in benefits - equivalent to £42,000 a year. In addition to £439 a week in income support, they receive £87 in housing benefit, £99 in child benefit, £18 in council tax benefit and £172 in carer's allowance and disability benefit for their sixth child, Tie, who has a serious skin disease that requires around-the-clock care.
The three-and-a-half-year-old is now the reason the Daveys say they can't work - although when Peter gave up his job, Tie hadn't even been born.
The little boy suffers from EB, epidermolysis bullosa, a painful genetic skin condition that causes blistering and constant shearing of the skin from the lightest touch.
'There's no harder work than caring for a profoundly handicapped child,' Claire repeatedly tells me. No one can argue with that.
I watch her on her knees on the floor changing his dressings, surrounded by NHS lotions, potions and bandages almost as big as the storage boxes stuffed with toys around the living room.
There is no doubt she loves her son and winces as he cries with the pain of the dressing change.
She is wearily patient, too, with her daughters who dance about in pretty frocks like any young girls.
The question, though, is whether it is right that they should receive such generous hand- outs at a time when most hard-working families are struggling simply to make ends meet. In this part of the country, people count themselves lucky if they can take home £200 a week.
Mr and Mrs Davey can claim four times that in welfare - tax-free!
Benefits-mobile: The Daveys' Mercedes parked outside their house
Might this have been a contributing factor in not bothering to look for work as their family grows? For not only is Claire pregnant with their eighth child, but the couple want more children. If Claire gets her way, they will become a family of
14. And who knows what the monthly benefits cheque would be then?
Peter tries to justify his position. 'People should work,' he says. 'My parents did all their lives, they were both nurses. I know the importance of work, the fulfilment. It's not that we don't want to work. I'd love to work. I miss working, but I'm a fulltime carer to Tie.'
And then there is the tireless charity work he does for EB charity DebRA, running marathons and organising events to raise money. All very worthwhile, no doubt. But I can't help wondering whether some of that same energy and commitment might not be better directed into finding a job.
But Claire trots out her favourite line again: 'There's no harder job than looking after Tie.' And, of course, there are the six other children: Jessica, 12, Jade, ten, Jamie-Anne, eight, Harriet, six, Adelle, four, and two-year-old Mercedes.
As an additional burden, the couple recently discovered that their unborn baby also has Tie's skin condition. Safe to say, there seems little chance of Peter finding work any time soon. Not that this hampers Claire's ambitions for an even larger family. 'No one can stop me having children.' But is it right, I ask?
'It's my right,' she replies. If people knew how hard her life was, she says, they would be more sympathetic. They might be less sympathetic to hear that despite their vast state handouts, the Daveys declared themselves bankrupt after being saddled with £20,000 of debts, mostly accrued from catalogue shopping.
They did it, they say, on the advice of the Citizens Advice Bureau, because they had no hope of paying off their debts. Even paying back tiny amounts for a long period was apparently impossible for them.
Claire says the money all went on clothes and toys for the children. 'It's every mother's right to buy their kids nice things,' she insists. Rights without responsibilities, it seems, is a recurring theme in the Davey household.
The financial troubles began, says Peter, after the birth of Tie. 'Driving to Alder Hey Hospital to see him every day, the cost of petrol and everything . . . But we did it all for the kids, everything is for the kids.'
Including the huge TV and the £50-a-month Sky subscription? That, Peter says, is their one indulgence. It's the only entertainment the kids get and the signal around their home is so bad they have to have Sky. In a rare flash of anger, Claire says: 'Anyway, who hasn't got Sky.'
The full feature appears in this week's Closer magazine, on sale now
And what about the two cars? Two cars mean two sets of vehicle tax, two sets of running costs. Can they afford that? 'Everything is for the kids.'
When I ask what they dream of for their children, Peter says, without a trace of irony: 'We teach them they can't expect things to be handed to them on a plate. They have to work hard. Claire makes them study hard too.'
'My dream is for my kids not to have the life I've had,' Claire adds. And what's that? 'A dead-end, living here on benefits. I want them to get out and get a good job.'
The way the Daveys see it is that the system has failed them, they haven't failed themselves. Peter says that straight after leaving his last job, he applied for 40 positions and not one led even to an interview.
Certainly, many of the factories around them are closing. And even at those that haven't, the wages are low - especially when compared to the welfare cheque for a couple with a large family.
In Anglesey, 15.3 per cent of 16 to 54 year olds are economically inactive, 15 per cent are on housing benefits and 18.4 per cent of primary school pupils get free school meals. Not a promising future, then, for the Daveys' ever-expanding brood.
The couple may use their sick son Tie to justify their position, but the truth is that this human tragedy began long before his birth into an already overflowing household.
No one is questioning their love for their children, but the glaring truth is that they are locked in to a culture of welfare dependency for the rest of their lives.
Peter's potential income is dwarfed by the amount the State will pay him and Claire for the rest of their lives without having to do a proper day's work.
That's the real tragedy here. When asked how they would defend themselves against their critics, they say: 'Don't judge a book by its cover - we are more than just a family on benefits, we are parents first, nurses second and advocates of DebRA charity third.'
Which is all very well, but by demanding a bigger house for their brood, and by driving around town in a Mercedes, it's hard to feel sympathy for their situation.
Surely the welfare state should be a safety net to help those in desperation, not a velvet cushion to support them in comfort forever.
Are they really victims of circumstance? Or are they simply making mugs of every one of us who believes in the dignity of work and taking responsibility for yourself?
Back in a cab, on the way to catch a train, the radio is on, and the last caller is finishing a phone-in on the local station.
The topic of conversation is the Daveys again. Rightly or wrongly, the last word I hear ringing in my ears? 'Scroungers.'
Eight Is Not Enough? The Big Families We Love to Hate
By Kathryn Joyce, RH Reality Check
February 5, 2009
It's often a funny thing when right and left agree, as did many vocal commentators across the ideological spectrum this week in condemning Nadya Suleman, the mother of the California octuplets conceived by in vitro fertilization and delivered last week by a team of 46 doctors and nurses. Such a large number of multiple births is so rare, many media reports pointed out, that only one previous example of octuplets exists in U.S history. It's also so rare that Microsoft Word's spellcheck doesn't recognize the word "octuplet," as several online commentators reported. This response in itself, speaking to the volumes of Internet opinionating the octuplets have inspired, gives some indication of how completely the controversy has transformed from a story based in solid facts - of which there are still very few so far - into the latest projection screen for fertility and childbirth controversies.
Big Families We Love, and Love to Hate
Suleman's newborns were delivered, as it were, into a pop cultural moment of preoccupation with large families. Reality TV shows about families with many children abound on TV's TLC channel, most notably with the chronicles of the 18-child Duggar family. That the Duggars are grounded in and motivated by the pro-patriarchy Quiverfull movement, with its emphasis on female submission and male headship, is breezily dispensed with in favor of dwelling on the sentimental and zany experiences of life in a 20-person family. "Jon and Kate Plus Eight," another reality TV show about a large family - this one the result of sextuplets born to a mother who, like Suleman, chose not to selectively reduce the number of embryos that "took" during an IVF treatment - is less burdened by the extremist ideology that undergirds the Duggars' convictions, but still presents a traditional picture of large family life, with married heterosexual parents and a stay-at-home mother. Though it's now impossible to separate the public reaction to Suleman's delivery from the swirl of facts and speculation about her motivations and mental health, it seems clear enough that much of the ire directed at her is due to her unorthodox family situation and her singleness most of all. While many observers are concerned with her apparent inability to support such a large family, the fact that she is unmarried has alone been cause enough for others to declare her family a situation of de facto child abuse.
Finding the Facts
Probably most readers know what there is to know about the story so far - what there is to know limited by the fact that Suleman hasn't talked publicly about her pregnancy. What is left are slivers of information from interviews with family members and neighbors. Nadya Suleman, a single mother and unemployed student with a degree in child and adolescent development, was an only child, and always wanted a large family. According to some, she aimed for 12 children in total, or maybe, after the six she already had through IVF, just one more girl. Her parents apparently recently declared bankruptcy, and moved with Suleman into a 3-bedroom house they'd bought for her, where they helped her care for her already-large family. When controversy erupted, Suleman quickly retained a spokeswoman, which, with her reported target of a $2 million appearance on Oprah, sealed her public persona as American villain rather than American sweetheart. Sadder facts of the story include the interviews with Suleman's mother, Angela Suleman, who has hinted at possible mental illness in her daughter by venting her frustration with her daughter's "obsession" with children. Another poignant detail is the report that Suleman's father, reportedly a Palestinian-born linguist, may have to return to a contract position in Iraq to raise money for the care of his daughter's 14-child family.
When "Miracle News" Sours
After a brief moment of "miracle news" coverage when the successful delivery was first announced, criticism of Suleman and her unnamed doctors began to mount from across the ideological spectrum. The hospital where she delivered reported receiving numerous calls demanding that their medical license be revoked and even several from people wishing the Suleman babies wouldn't survive. More common were the concerns, on the left, that the children would be neglected or that they constituted an environmentally hazardous selfishness, and on the right, the charge that Suleman was the end result of a culture that condones single parenthood and glorifies individual choice above all other considerations.
Individual choice didn't seem to be a particular concern throughout the debate though, which has been marked by highly moralistic overtones in discussing whether or not Suleman's pregnancy should have been "allowed" to take place. On liberal websites, a surprising hostility to Suleman’s right to have made such reproductive decisions has been common, taking issue with whether Suleman was entitled to choose to have so many children in her circumstances, seeming to embrace a sort of anti-choice rhetoric. (Though it’s worth noting that OB-GYN Amy Tuteur, writing on Salon, makes a convincing argument for limiting “right to choose” analogies, as endless comparisons to abortion rights only serve to distort discussions of medical ethics.) And on some conservative websites, there has been an equally surprising insistence that Suleman should have been forced to abort some of the embryos. A number of fertility doctors contacted to give expert opinions seemed to rush to distance themselves from what one bioethicist, M. Sara Rosenthal, called an "outrageous" breach of medical protocol. While the implantation of eight embryos, if it did occur - and this seems up for debate as well, as Angela Suleman told the AP that "far fewer" than eight embryos were implanted in her daughter, and that they then apparently multiplied - would certainly be beyond the pale by almost all medical standards, some of the pronouncements of fertility ethics had an unsettling whiff of paternalism. One article discussed how responsible doctors may have to "simply [say] no," to women seeking multiple implantations in order to "be a strong and responsible advocate for moms and babies." In an interview with CNN, Rosenthal raised the neonatalist theory that women may not have the emotional capacity to make proper decisions when informed about the risks of premature births due to the distress such news may cause them.
What's Desirable vs. What's Allowed
This sort of language and reasoning, at least taking place as a debate in the non-expert arena of the media, seems too familiar for comfort, echoing the sort of anti-abortion rhetoric Justice Anthony Kennedy relied upon in the 2007 Carhart case: that abortion is not a crime women commit, but one they need to be protected from by those who know better. The danger of slipping into that territory, of empowering doctors to determine women's reproductive best interests, seems enough justification to allow for cases that offend public sensibility. As Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, explained, "A number of commentators are saying a woman with six kids should not be allowed medical treatment to have additional ones, and I think, at a common sense level, that makes good sense. However, to make that work, that means someone is going to start deciding for other people how, when and why they can have children. That's a very big step and one that we might not be prepared to take."
But in contrast to that reasonable estimation of the difference between what's desirable and what's allowed, is the overlap of criticism between camps that would normally be at ideological ends. Both conservative and liberal commenters loudly wondered who, in this moment of financial meltdown, was going to pay for all of this. Right-wing California shock jock Bill Handel declared the births "freakish," and announced that people were "ready to boycott any corporations that help the octuplets or their mother." Likewise, commenters discussing the story on liberal site Huffington Post suggested that if Oprah did host Suleman on her show, viewers should boycott Oprah as well. (Neither side should likely worry, as the AP reported on the snubbing response of Pampers and Gerbers officials, who donated little or nothing to the Suleman family. Television station TLC has said that, while it has contacted the Sulemans about television opportunities, it's holding off any production decisions until they determine how "TV-friendly" the family proves.) A comment thread title on Yelp summed up the sentiment of many: "Octuplets born in Bellflower, she better not be on Welfare!!"
Indeed, a number of feminist writers remarked on how closely the outrage over Suleman mirrored old "welfare queen" tropes, where large families weren't seen as miraculous or a Cheaper By the Dozen adventure - as more traditionalistic large families are often portrayed on TV and in popular media - but as burdens to the state, brought on by an irresponsible mother. Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told Salon's Broadsheet that perceived race of mothers was often a key component of how stories of large families were treated in the media. "When the pregnant woman is not brown or black and the drugs/technologies are provided by big pharma, the discussion focuses on questions of ethics. But if the issue is childbearing by low-income women of color, and the drug is homegrown/illegal then the debate is a question of punishment through the criminal justice or civil child welfare system."
This angle was sadly confirmed by some blog comments speculating whether the name "Suleman" had a "very ethnic ring to it - Middle Eastern in fact." Conservative blogger Phyllis Chesler took these insinuations a few steps farther, swiftly dispatching with the makeup of America's most prominent pronatalist activists - complementarian conservative Chrsitians - to hang the mantle of over-the-top procreation on fundamentalist Mormon polygamists and Muslims (whom she refers to as "outlawed, break-away Mormon and law-abiding Muslim men," in case her meaning isn't clear). After noting that "Osama bin Laden's father had 57 children," Chesler wonders whether Suleman's ethnicity is determining her family size, writing, "Once this gets out-will she become a poster child/mother baby formula and diapers? Or for Jihad?"
More commonly, the indictments were more subtle, as characterized by Townhall conservative columnist Mona Charen, whose reaction was to blame the octuplets on as-yet-unmarried California Representative Linda Sanchez, who announced her pregnancy last November.
Different Judgments for Different Families
Jill Stanek, a veteran anti-choice activist who opposes IVF, condemned Suleman as well, albeit somewhat reluctantly. "The question I'm hearing often asked, ‘Can one have too many children?'" she wrote, "is wrong. No, one cannot. But God didn't intend for human mothers to give birth to litters, particularly with no husbands in sight. It's unnatural on all levels."
Some of Stanek's ardently anti-abortion readers were harsher, with one declaring that "[Suleman's] mentality is abortion mentality: ‘I will decide who lives, who dies, when I have children.' I bet she isn't even infertile!" the writer continued, "Just hates men!" This level of vitriol sparked Stanek to defend Suleman, and to come to the surprising defense that "sexism at play here. Were Suleman married, no one would be questioning her motive for becoming pregnant with multiples."
That’s not quite true. The large families promoted most ardently by the pronatalist “Quiverfull” wing of the anti-abortion movement strongly emphasize the importance of not planning one’s family – either by limiting it or artificially enlarging it – viewing such self-determination, even in the interests of growing a family, as the root of the reproductive choices they condemn. Though certainly many would be more accepting of a large family that had IVF children than they are of those who choose contraception or abortion, most hold, as one of Stanek's commenters writes, that "If one believes as I do that God determines fertility, then one believes that in a proper husband-wife relationship God will supply a large family's needs."
Duggar Family
Among the movement of purposefully very large families in the U.S., this is the predominant conviction, almost universally accompanied by an extreme traditionalism in marriage roles that holds women's prolific fertility up not as one option to choose but as the only righteous path for true believers. Suleman's family size may approximate that of the Duggars and other families at the forefront of a theological movement that stresses traditional gender roles above all other concerns, but that is likely where the resemblance ends. In terms of reproductive matters of national concern, one woman's idiosyncratic and likely tragic choices seem to pale beside a movement that insists on similarly large and labor-intensive broods of children for women and raises daughters to see this as the only blueprint for their lives. It says something about where we are as a country that the former isolated case attracts more concern than the existence of the latter as a growing movement.