Attack of the killer baby bonus mums

Andrew Leigh and Joshua Gans’ latest attack on the Howard Government is causing collateral damage. According to Helen Smart, the publicity surrounding their latest Baby Bonus paper "spawned a disgusting hatefest on news.com.au and similar forums, with all the usual suspects getting an airing: bogans, young single mums (Boo!), plasma tvs, dole bludgers, ‘natural selection’."

As a critic of politically targeted handouts, Andrew is opposed to the Baby Bonus. Recently he and Joshua Gans presented evidence that women (with help from their doctors) had delayed births in order to benefit from an increase in the payment. They claimed that "over 600 births were moved from June 2006 to July 2006, with unknown and potentially adverse health consequences" (pdf). The message they meant to send was that the implementation of the Government’s latest cash-for-votes scheme had unintended consequences — some of them potentially harmful. But the message many newspaper readers received was different.

The villain in Andrew and Joshua’s tale is the Howard Government. Rather than targeting welfare payments to those who need them most, the Government has targeted them to those whose votes they need the most. As Andrew put it in an earlier opinion piece, "Targeted welfare may be good economics, but middle-class welfare is good politics." He wonders whether concerned citizens should fund an advertising campaign to pressure policy makers into doing the right thing.

But the latest Baby Bonus story cranks things up a notch. Not only are economically irresponsible politicians willing to waste taxpayers’ money in an unprincipled grab for votes but now they are putting children’s lives at risk. And with a villain who is risking the lives of innocent babies, how could the media resist?

The problem is that the media changed the story’s focus. For most readers, the villains in the media’s story will not be unprincipled politicians, but irresponsible women holding out for a bigger Baby Bonus. Here’s Mark Schliebs’s lead from News.com:

A HUGE number of expecting mothers delayed births in order to qualify for the increased Baby Bonus payments in July last year, a new study has revealed.

Not surprisingly, readers were appalled. For many, the Baby Bonus was a moral test and the study was evidence that hundreds of women had failed. As one reader put it, "It seems money is more important to some than the wellbeing of thier [sic] unborn child !! It can be a sick world out there!" According to another reader, "the bogans in this country only ever do things if money is the motivation." Obviously they want the Bonus to "pay for all those cigarettes, alcohol, and j bags."

Andrew and Joshua didn’t set out to spin a morality tale about bad bogan mothers. If you read their paper in full, the message is far more measured:

The financial interventions by the Australian government both in introducing a baby bonus and increasing it have had the effect of disrupting normal maternity hospital operations. The consequences of this are unknown. However, it is precisely because of that that governments need to take care in not creating conditions that introduce disruptions.

As Helen says:

It was the Mighty Morphin’ Power Media which translated “economists identify spike in delayed (scheduled) births which could possibly cause trouble because it’s swamping the medical resources” to “Greedy mums putting bubs at risk by literally sewing themselves shut and ..”,

This is a tale about unintended consequences. And if the story has a moral it’s that everyone needs to look out for them.

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Fleeced
14 years ago

Well, I’d like to see the baby bonus go – but won’t this have a similar effect? Instead of having mothers delay birth, won’t they try and induce it before the cut-off date?

I don’t necessarily see how the two interpretations on this story are mutually exclusive.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Fleeced – Have you noticed that there’s a missing actor in both stories? Where are the doctors?

As Helen says, you need to pay attention to the kind of births we’re talking about here. They seem to be “heavily weighted towards elective caesarians or induced labours”. In their paper Joshua and Andrew acknowledge that “Birth timing is a negotiation between the parents and their physician”. And they even cite research on the issue:

Gans and Leigh (2006b) estimate that this negotiation is somewhat one-sided with doctors having three times the bargaining power of their patients in birth timing decisions.

Helen
14 years ago

This is a ripper post, Don, although I’m glad my breakfast was well digested before I saw your illustration. I like your last sentence – very true!

“Where are the doctors” – in the AGE headline. Even though doctors hadn’t said anything. Not obsetetricians, anyway!

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Helen – Yes, with a headline like ‘Baby bonus a health risk, say doctors‘ you’d expect to find at least one quote from a physician.

After you’ve digested your lunch maybe you should go read mighty morphin’ Robyn Riley at the Hun:

Economics professor at the University of Melbourne, Joshua Gans, said having a date was economic mismanagement.

Perhaps. But I think the problem here is greed.

pablo
14 years ago

“..the problem here is greed”. Even with the staggered payments I have to agree it’s the ‘G’ word and having just read Mark Latham’s election commentary in Friday’s AFR my guess is he would say the same. Except I wonder if it is middle class welfare or a bit of Cossie’s misguided nation building. But I wouldn’t want to blame the women. And what is Kevin saying on the issue? Metoo?

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

The only women likely to have a decision making conversation with their obs&gyny person will be from brighton, brunswick, williamstown, yarraville, richmond, hawthorn, camberwell, sandringham etc etc.

bogans, welfare bludgers, single welfare mums etc won’t even have bloody obs&gyny person.

Most of them won’t even have a regular GP.

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

I haven’t read the whole paper yet but is there a distinction between private and public births and is there a breakdown by postcode and by obs&gyny specialist and a comparison over last 5 years? If not it’s just the usual economist paper.

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

insert smiley thingo at end as appropriate

Joshua Gans
14 years ago

I reflected on all this myself (http://www.economics.com.au/?p=1182). It is hard to know what to do to engage policy-makers even if these consequences were known.

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

Anyway – off the top of my head far more negative health outcomes (and higher costs) will be the result of induced births than those waiting until nature/god takes its/his/her course.

Joshua Gans
14 years ago

Francis
Our original paper on the 2004 introduction found that parents who came from postcodes with high average income were more likely to have delayed births. This is consistent with your guess and against the usual presumption.

conrad
conrad
14 years ago

I’m with FXH on this one. I also think if you want to give hand-outs to people, then this one of the better ones — you give money to people when they suddenly encounter a large spike in expenses, and they can spend it on what they want — and its hard to imagine you would have a lot left over after hospitals fees, new furniture and so on. If it happens to cause a small number of adverse consequences, most of which are based simply on moral judgements of people about who should/shouln’t have children, then is that really a big deal? In the scheme of quirks and perks it isn’t hard to think of worse ones.

Jezery
Jezery
14 years ago

Timing a birth for financial advantage is hardly a new phenomena. It’s just that the baby bonus makes it available to a different demographic.

An aunt of mine arranged for her baby to be induced on 28 June (due date was 26 June), so they could get all the medical expenses in the one financial year for the tax advantages. This was around 25 years ago, so my memory of the details is a little hazy, but I can vividly remember the aboslutely appalled gossip that was carried on within the extended family.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

Though birth dates are fiddled with every week, such as fewer births on Saturdays and Sundays because medical staff prefer not to work on weekends. While I think the baby bonus should be scrapped, I’m not convinced that the Gans/Leigh paper adds more than very modestly to the case for getting rid of it.

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

Well, the paper is not so much agin the Baby bonus a saying that the date of implementation should be done like tax changes that are vulnerable to timing issues – effective from the date of announcement of the measure (ie “government by press release”) so that people can’t anticipate them.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

DD – At least Gans is against the bonus. The paper suggests more gradual increases rather than sudden jumps rather than what you suggest.

Rebecca Copas
14 years ago

If it is true that there were more births scheduled for July, that might otherwise have been in June, the only way it can be true is exactly as Francis Xavier Holden noted in comment 10., by letting nature take its course and reducing the number of interventions happening in June.

Not many c-sections can be delayed unless they were already unnecessarily scheduled for convenience, but an induction can be either delayed or not conducted outside of immediate emergency situations, (eg, the waters broke with evidence of fetal excrament in the water and the mother is not going into labour – an extremely rare sort of situation). Most inductions are conducted for any woman who is ten days or more past her due by date, and not based upon her health and the fetal signs, but rather only based upon the statistical likelihood of a safe delivery. Yet the fact that women really need to stand up for their right not to be interferred with in birth giving, so as to be allowed to deliver naturally after the tenth day after the original due date, is overtly skewing the statistics such that it began to seem impossible for safe delivery after that time, when previous to inductions being available, it was common and normal for most women to be around ten days overdue, some about two weeks, and a fewer number as much as a month. Actually the secret seems to be that pregnancy is a ten month process not a nine month process, but the profession of obstetrics got a foothold in the first place by intervening in delivery, back in the mid 1800’s; and you can’t really make a profit from an intervention after the baby is already born, can you? Usually, in the modern world, a due date is set at forty weeks from the first day of the last period, or 38 weeks from the embryo first occuring through fertilization of the egg by the sperm and then the zygot embedding into the uterus lining. In the past it was more often read from the mother first feeling the babies movement, and that day being pegged as having a possiblity of a live baby being born in the minimum time frame of after 20 weeks.

The point is, that the homebirth movement here in Australia is well behind those in New Zealand, the USA, Canada, and all of Western Europe, because of our obstetricians here keep being let get away with horrifying us with the threat that mothers and babies might be more likely to die if it were not for their hand in the matter.

Most normal industrialised democracies have long seen the sense in enabling women who want to stay at home to give birth, to do so. It is way cheaper for the government funded health services in every country where it happens that way. In Holland a family have to pay a fee to go to hospital if there was no medical signs of any intervention being necessary, but at home the birth is paid for by the government. That payment includes a midwife in attendance with about as much medical intervention equippment as most mothers in fact end up needing in hospital. The midwives can take blood samples and administer pethadine and local anastheics in the home, and always carry all the equippment for reviving babies. Meanwhile the drive to the hospital if there is any trouble usually takes the same amount of time as it takes in hospital for the transfer of a woman from a natural delivery suite up to an surgical intervention room, and for the doctor who can cut her open to be located and scrub up, etc.

Interestingly also, the highest rates of c-section interventions are among women whom are well educated, and have fully undertaken every preparation for a natural delivery, but whom happen also to have private medical insurance. No joke. Delivery by c-section is an intervention which is extremely harsh on the mother, and there are studies done in Holland which indicate that the stress of a natural delivery which the baby experiences, provides a specific process in the babies hormones to begin its development, and that without that experience the development of an innate capacity to cope with stress is inhibited.

The point I am getting to is that if they could delay a few births for the baby bonus, and presumably a percentage of those were scheduled inductions; then why not every day?

But I will also comment about what that baby bonus is being spent upon among us folk who are on such low incomes as to need it. It ain’t being spent on the medical expenses unless its a homebirth, since all that comes in under medicare with midwives or your own GP-obstetrician, and the fees only come in for those who want a knife weilding maniac present. However, it is usually readily used up on the basics of: a baby-toddler childsafe car seat; a pram and/or other device to aid carrying a baby to the shops; a cot if the parents decide they need; and the recommended quantity of clothe nappies and/or singlets, and other baby clothes. It is not really much money, and covers those items which had been before the baby bonus, often enough available through the major charities.

However I will also disagree with Francis Xavier Holden at comment 6. in respect of most young single mothers not even having a GP. I used to work as a youth worker with young mothers, and the extra attention which is being provided to the younger age group by the medical profession is really very decent. Most younger mothers tend to see their GP far more regularly than the rest of us in fact. Simple because they are very alert to any possible critism of their motherhood, and also having entered into motherhood before the end, or shortly after the end, of the adolescence; younger mothers are fully assertive of their credibility and self-esteem in their motherhood. Motherhood provides most women, but especially the younger women who have not attained educational or career acheivement, the taste of a real life long acheivement pattern, in a dose that becomes a fully realisable manifestation of social capacity. That is so long as younger mothers are respected. GP’s and midwives are at the forefront of providing to those younger mothers their dignity. Where younger mothers struggle is only where they are not being socially accepted only because they have not yet attained any educational equivalents to their actual knowledge and skills. Many teenagers who have a baby are thereafter far more motivated to complete their study since they notice how much better society regards their baby if they are a student, than if they are only a sole parent, or on a boyfriends dole. Motherhood is a massive motivation to seek positive attention. The situation of very young males who become parents is much worse, and it is usually the males inability to cope which damages the social situation for the baby. He has not endured the biological transition which is a life changing crisis at its best.

When we hear of younger mothers having another baby so as to get the baby bonus, it might be worth while considering that she could be just saying that to receive attention from persons around her with right wing ideas. She might be ashamed of having become pregnant again. She might not be wanting to have a baby and rather wanting to repair a broken relationship, but if having reconciled herself to that reason, it is more often that the male partner of a younger mother will hang around only if he supposes he can get his hands on that baby bonus.

Basically however, my point is that the “huge number of expecting mothers” who “delayed births” neatly prove that there is more medical intervention being done than is really necessary. If the baby had been at risk then normal GP and midwife care, will not let the birth be delayed. Perhaps it is the level of obstetric dependance upon unnecessary interventions which was behind the news.com.au condemnations. Although, to give the obstetricians the benefit of the doubt, it seems that their education here in Australia is unnecessarily backwards in contrast to the rest of the planet.