© 2001 Karen Selick
 Why  Are We Subsidizing Child Production?

An edited version of this article first appeared in the January 21, 2001 issue of The National Post.  If you wish to reproduce this article,click here for copyright info.


 Why  Are We Subsidizing Child Production?

Last February, the federal government announced changes to the Employment Insurance Act that extended the EI benefit payout period for mothers of newborns from 30 weeks to 50 weeks, commencing January 1, 2001. However, that change alone doesn’t guarantee that all eligible women will be able to take advantage of the extended subsidy. Separate employment standards laws govern how long an employer must hold a job open for an employee on parental leave. 

British Columbia rushed to make its law conform with the EI rules. Other provinces dragged their feet—some more, some less. Ontario, for instance, amended its law just before Christmas. Alberta, on the other hand, recently appointed a committee to consult with employers and employees about whether to increase its current 18-week leave. No decision is expected before February. 

Meanwhile, employers in those regions of the country where the change is a fait accompli are dismayed that it all occurred without consultation and without any apparent appreciation of the impact it might have on their business operations. 

Indeed, some of the official rhetoric surrounding the amendments demonstrates just how lacking some Canadian politicians and bureaucrats are in any understanding of how a business--or the economy in general--actually operates. 

B.C. Labour Minister Joy MacPhail, for instance, praised the change because it would create employment opportunities for replacement workers--ignoring the fact that the law would also be responsible for destroying those jobs at the end of the year.

One Alberta MLA suggested that the changes would be desirable because children stand to gain more than businesses would lose. But how can he know? There are no regulation units of human satisfaction that can be measured, counted or weighed. Therefore, cost-benefit comparisons are meaningless unless both the benefits and the related costs are to be experienced by the same person, who can then choose between two contrasting packages. If we accepted the validity of cost-benefit comparisons between different people, all manner of malfeasance could be justified—robbery, rape, murder. The person receiving the benefit will always think his gain outweighs the victim’s loss, and with no objective standard of measurement, who can refute him?

Human Resources Development Canada suggested that longer maternity leaves might actually be better for businesses’ productivity because "it might be easier and more cost effective to hire and train a replacement worker for 12 months instead of 6 months."

HRDC is right about one thing—temporary employees will usually be more productive after twice as much training. However, having gone to all the trouble of finding the replacement and training her for a full year, why should an employer then have to give up this thoroughly trained employee and take back the previous one, whose skills and job-specific knowledge have had more time to become obsolete and may well be less valuable now than those of the replacement worker?

In fact, why should the employer have to hold the job open at all, let alone for 6 or 12 months? Look at it from the replacement worker’s point of view. After finding and learning a new job, why is she deemed less deserving of permanent employment than the person she replaced? She may have children to support, too. 

Every case will vary according to the demands of the job and the relative capabilities of the two workers. Some employees are so superb at their jobs that their employers would gladly hold jobs open for them, law or no law. Other employees can be easily replaced or improved upon. Businesses (and the economy in general) would run more efficiently if employers and employees were legally permitted to negotiate terms that suited the particular case, instead of being bound by a one-size-fits-all law. 

Would this discourage female employees from having babies? In some cases, yes. If the employer would not guarantee her a job after a year’s absence, she might choose career over baby. But this would place the true economic costs of having a baby back on the person in whose hands the decision ultimately lies—the woman. Under the current system of mandatory maternity leaves, women have been able to shift a portion of that cost to their employers and to their temporary replacements. These people have no say at all in whether or not the pregnancy occurs or the new mother returns to reclaim her job. They just pay the price.
These days, many employers are themselves female. If they choose to have a baby, there is no-one to subsidize them. They’re not eligible for EI benefits. They can’t force their customers or clientele to resume dealing with them after having had to find a substitute for a year. I’ve known business women who have returned to work within a few weeks of giving birth in order to preserve their hard-earned enterprises. Why should these employers have to bear not only the cost of their own child-rearing decisions but also that of their employees?

The law grants the production of babies a deferential treatment that no other endeavour commands. An employee who wants time off to write a book or patent an invention can’t demand that her job be held for her. That book or invention might enrich humankind far more than most babies ever will, but we don’t force the author’s employer to subsidize it.

But children are different, the argument goes. Society should subsidize child production because we will all benefit some day when the kids grow up to become doctors, engineers, etc. 

There’s a flaw in this logic. When those kids grow up, they won’t provide their services for free. Why should today’s adults pay for them twice, once now and once later? Besides, while it’s true we all benefit from having other people around us rather than living as hermits, we already pay for this benefit in kind, merely by being around ourselves for others to associate with. And finally, there’s no guarantee that the children we’re subsidizing will all turn out to be fine, upstanding citizens. Some of them may become criminals. Why should we be forced to subsidize something so speculative?

We’re probably just kidding ourselves if we think the next generation will turn out significantly better for having had mom at home for 12 months instead of 6. In fact, by encouraging child production among those who are either unwilling or unable to give the project the several years of full-time devotion it can easily require, we may simply be setting the stage for greater problems in years to come. 

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July 31, 2001