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Friday, April 08, 2016

Single Mothers, 'Equality' and 'Punishment'

Many people are sharing a video of Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-yin's "impassioned call for children of single mothers to get the same benefits as married women".

Presumably, not everyone shared it because of the mesmerising jacket she was wearing. Some people think that Singapore punishes or penalises single mothers, and that they are being discriminated against. Some even say that single mothers need even more help than married ones.

The issue I will explore here is not whether children or single parents have worse outcomes (they do), or whether incentives can lead to more children born to single parents (they do) but rather the issue of equality and whether single mothers are being punished.

Equality is not always better than inequality.

Consider the following situations:

Situation A:
There are 10 people in a room.

Situation B:
There are 10 people in a room
Mr X comes in from outside and gives 9 of them $10 each. He does not give the last person (Mr Z) any money.

Is Mr Z being punished or penalised?

Situation C:
There are 10 people in a room.
Mr X comes in from outside and gives 9 of them $10 each. He gives Mr Z $5.

Is Mr Z being punished or penalised?

In situation A, we can see that there was equality.
In situation B, Mr Z was no worse off than in situation A, and everyone else was better off.
In situation C, Mr Z was better off than in situation A, and everyone else was also better off.

In Singapore, single mothers are like Mr Z and the current situation is like situation C.

Let us take the example of maternity leave.

Paid maternity leave was 8 weeks in 2000.

It became 12 weeks in 2004 and 16 weeks in 2008.

Today, under the Employment Act, single or unmarried mothers are entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave, so they are better off than married women were in 2000 and at least as well off as they were in 2004 (at least if they are covered by the Employment Act).

There is also a question of whether the benefits mothers receive are needs-based or meant to promote the state's policy objectives by encouraging certain behaviours.

An example of a needs-based benefit would be unemployment benefit (the dole). This is given to the unemployed because they need money to survive.

An example of a benefit to promote state policy objectives would be subsidising homeowners who install solar panels on their roofs. This is given to encourage people to use solar power.

It wouldn't make sense to say that those who do not own homes, or who do not install solar panels on their roofs are being "punished" or "discriminated against" by this policy - it is precisely the aim of this policy to only reward those who install solar panels on their roofs, because the desired outcome is for more people to install solar panels on their roofs.

It wouldn't make sense, either, to say that:
- non home owners need more help than home owners (since they are usually poorer, not having a house, which is most people's major asset)
- since those who install solar panels are more likely to be wealthy and/or well-educated than those who don't, the former need less help than the latter
So all these people should get even more subsidies than home owners who install solar panels on their roofs.

Clearly, Singapore's enhancement in recent decades of maternity and child benefits fall into the latter category - not the former.

As is very explicitly stated in the August 2008 announcement which, among other things, extended maternity leave to 16 weeks:

The enhanced Marriage and Parenthood Package seeks to foster an overall pro-family environment in Singapore through a broader range of measures that offers greater support in both financial and non-financial areas... the Government is committed to fostering an overall family-friendly environment so that Singaporeans can have more support in getting married and having and raising children. We are also mindful that for all that we do, Singaporeans must desire to get married and have children in the first place. Societal attitude towards this needs to change, and we hope to facilitate the change with the enhanced Package
(Government Doubles Budget to Provide More Support for Marriage and Parenthood)

This is in keeping with the Singapore government's general philosophy, where even what needs-based benefits are available are quite hard to get.

ComCare, aka the Public Assistance Scheme, for example, does not disburse money to elderly persons who have children if the children are not supporting their own families and/or have household income above $1,700. The social objectives here are clear.

All in all, the problem with benefits is that they soon turn into entitlements.

And that somehow, the withholding of a benefit is seen as a punishment, as if the state were actively going out of its way to make life difficult for single mothers by, for example, slapping them with a higher tax rate than a single non-mother.

Really, there easiest way to give single mothers the same benefits as married ones is to reduce the benefits the latter get.

Of course, one could consider whether it is worthwhile having more children born to single mothers if that raises the birth rate or some such, but those are separate issues from the equality and punishment issues.
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