Is the two child limit 'a perfect eugenic solution'?

By Bernadette Meaden
April 12, 2018

When my father was killed in an accident, I was five.  My brothers were seven and two. This government would have deemed one of us, a bereaved two year old, undeserving of support. 

Much has been written about the government’s ‘two child limit’, which means parents on a low income, in work or out of work, cannot claim social security benefits for more than two children. The injustice of tipping more children into poverty, the costs and consequences that will bring further down the line, have been expertly set out by organisations like Child Poverty Action Group. 

But what I’d like to consider for a moment is the thinking behind such a policy, and what it says about the government’s beliefs and values.

As the Rev Caroline Beckett tweeted on the day faith leaders made a stand  on the two child limit, “Controversial thought: is this hands-off eugenics?”  It may be a controversial thought, but it’s not an unreasonable one. Indeed, one of the government’s most prominent allies appears to hold that view.

In a Spectator article published on 2 April 2016, Fraser Nelson wrote, “It’s comforting now to think of eugenics as an evil that sprang from the blackness of Nazi hearts. We’re familiar with the argument: some men are born great, some as weaklings, and both pass the traits on to their children. So to improve society, the logic goes, we must encourage the best to breed and do what we can to stop the stupid, sick and malign from passing on their defective genes. This was taken to a genocidal extreme by Hitler, but the intellectual foundations were laid in England. And the idea is now making a startling comeback.”

He goes on to explain that the word eugenics was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, who “wondered whether advances in health care and welfare had sullied the national gene pool because they allowed more of the sick and disabled not just to survive but to lead normal family lives. He went off to collect data, and came back with his theory of eugenics.” This theory was promptly embraced by the establishment.

The problem is, writes Nelson, “Because we forget how badly Britain fell for eugenics, we fail to recognise the basic arguments of eugenics when they reappear – which they are now doing with remarkable regularity.” He cites the example of Dr Adam Perkins, who believes that social security has made it too easy for people with undesirable ‘work resistant’ personalities to have children. Dr Perkins wrote a book called The Welfare Trait in which, Nelson writes, “with Galtonesque precision he estimates some 98,040 ‘extra’ people were ‘created by the welfare state’ over 15 years due to a rise in welfare spending. They represent an ‘ever-greater burden on the more functional citizens’.

Nelson continues, “In 1938, Germans were shown a poster of a cripple and invited to be angry about the costs of caring for him (60,000 Reichmarks). Dr Perkins tries a softer version of this general idea, calculating the £12,000-a-head annual cost of the new British untermensch – not just in welfare, but the crimes they will probably commit. His remedy? That Cameron’s government restricts welfare, so that claimants have fewer children. A perfect eugenic solution.”

Now, Mr. Nelson is clearly disapproving of this idea, having characterised it as a softer version of Nazi policy. But just such a ‘eugenic solution’, the two child limit, was already in the pipeline, having been announced in George Osborne’s 2015 Budget.  

Iain Duncan Smith had been advocating such a policy for several years, and had been quite clear that the intention was to bring about ‘behavioural change’ so that claimants would have fewer children.

As ever, the rhetoric used to promote the policy aimed to gain support by harnessing resentment towards people wo were unemployed, asking why ‘hardworking taxpayers’ should be expected to help support the children of people who weren’t working. In practice, all those on low incomes will be affected, some of them doing the hardest jobs in society.

Clearly, one of the drivers of this policy has been a desire to save money – but there also seems to be a far more disturbing impulse behind it, one that has been around for centuries, one that lay behind the building of workhouses. It is the fear and resentment of the comfortable and secure: the fear that people who happen to be poor are producing too many children, and a resentment that the prosperous may be called upon to help support those children. It is an ugly impulse, and ultimately a very short-sighted one. As the Rev Caroline Beckett went on to ask in her tweet "What about need to maintain birthrate & our 'ageing population'? If penalising poorer children is the answer, we're asking the wrong kinds of questions."

I wholeheartedly agree. Governments often say their policies send a message. Welfare reformers were open about wanting to bring about a cultural change. The message this policy sends, the culture this policy creates, is that the third child in every low-income family is, as far as the government is concerned, an unaffordable, irresponsible, unwanted indulgence, who will, the government shall ensure, make their siblings even poorer. It is mean-spirited in the extreme. As a country, our true wealth is in the gifts and potential of our people. This policy is horribly misanthropic.

* More on The Welfare Trait from Ekklesia


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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