Why do families living in poverty have so many kids? We tackle this mystery in our first Faces of Payatas feature of 2017
It seems irrational, self-defeating even, to have more kids than you can afford. Many people argue poor parents act irresponsibly by having more kids than they can handle. More and more kids they can’t feed.
Imagine you’re a child born into such a family. You have many brothers and sisters and either the family struggle to pay for your school needs or you never go in the first place. Either way you end up out-of-school and work instead. From as young as six years old you’re scavenging through trash, tending the family sari-sari store, or looking after younger siblings. And your life prospects shrink.
Except that’s not what happens… families in Payatas aren’t poor because they have many kids. Many times they have lots of kids because they’re poor.
Myra started working with us towards the end of 2016. We needed someone to supervise the kids who weren’t in class and help take care of the facility. May, our Education Director, recommended Myra.
Myra is 35 years old. She has 9 kids. She dropped out of school in Grade 6 because her broken family couldn’t support her schooling. She cried as she talked about her dream in the past, to be a computer engineer, mourning the loss. Myra first worked as a maid, then a factory worker, and then selling vegetables at the market, all to support her younger sisters’ schooling. Decent jobs are scarce in places like Payatas.
By the time Myra was pregnant with her first baby she was scavenging from the dumpsite. This was around the time of the collapse back in 2000, where a landslide of the garbage mountain buried hundreds of people. Since then she has worked scavenging through the City’s trash.
Myra is very thin. That’s not unusual in slums of course. Most of the kids are malnourished and vitamin-deficient in some form or other. And that’s part of the argument: if the parents can’t take care of themselves then how can they take care of their kids?
Myra had her first child at 19 years old. She had eight more kids. Myra cares very much for her children. She’s trying her best to raise her kids. But this is where the “choice” of having children suddenly looks a lot less of a choice. To survive, to have any future, poor families need kids.
Children in slum communities are often ‘specialised’ (Murakami, 2011). One of the elder kids, or a child showing academic promise early on, will be the hope of the family. But to pay for the uniforms, project materials, and everything else, the family needs money. And that’s where the other kids come in. By working in whatever jobs are available, they increase the income of the family. In Payatas, that usually means scavenging through trash.
Why is this needed so badly? One reason is school is so expensive. Uniforms, transport, project materials, the supposedly optional outings, and other school costs add up to around P20,000/year. If you’re living in poverty, and you have three kids, that’s half your entire household income. With higher infant mortality, and low rates of graduation in poor communities, it’s too great a risk. It’s a bit like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a sort of Prisoners of Poverty Dilemma.
Myra also says back then she didn’t know about family planning. After 9 kids she now has an implant. The local barangay were doing a drive for implants several years ago to which more than a hundred women showed up, Myra said. Implants last three years but politics is a problem. How will she be able to replace the implant if the next barangay captain doesn’t support the initiative? Local politicians are notorious for abandoning past initiatives so they can have their name on something else. Plus the previous barangay captain was kicked out for corruption. Elections are later this year.
For sure, good family planning programs help in communities like Payatas. But that’s not the whole story. Many poor families could know everything in the world about family planning, access to contraception could be improved (and should be), but still have large numbers of kids because they need more hands contributing to the household income.
Some poor families are essentially forced into growing larger and larger precisely because they’re poor.
It may seem odd, how can having more mouths to feed be rational? Academic articles have long noted larger families tend to be poorer. Orbeta Jr (2005), writing for the Asian Development Bank, notes 10% of Filipino families with one child are poor, while 40% of families of six are poor. But few causal links are offered. It’s mostly assumed that they’re poor because they are a large family and have more mouths to feed.
But what if the causation worked the other way? Having more kids increases the chances one of them will be successful enough to support the parents when they’re older. And when scavenging through trash is the only available work for most people, even for many school graduates, you may as well get started much earlier in life. Learning about the Capital of Madagascar or Quadratic Equations isn’t going to help you. Nationally 50% of children dropout of school (Nava, 2009), and that’s much higher in slums. The chances of success are much lower. And so you need to take as many chances as you can.
Most poor families are working in informal jobs, too, with no healthcare or pension benefits. The kids are the only access to a pension they have. Sure that can create a cycle where families have more kids because they’re poor, and even if one of them is successful it leads to more poor kids overall, who in turn recreate the cycle. And there is, of course, a lot more to the story as well than we can fit in this article.
But understanding the choice these families face also acknowledges that poor families are very rational to have more kids. It’s not that they’re stupid and making a bad choice, and therefore deserve the bad effects of those choices (as is usually what poor people hear when others talk about this). It acknowledges that poor people are caught in a Catch-22 situation: continue to be poor as adults, have no children, and have no future pension, or have kids and hope one will be successful enough to support you, even if most will likely end up poor too.
Importantly it also begins to empathise with why they’re making this decision. And empathy is the start of everything. With empathy we can stop the usual judgement and understand more instead. And from there we can come up with better solutions.
What’s Next for Myra and her Family?
Myra now has some possibilities. Employed with Fairplay she has a more secure income than scavenging. Myra is currently learning about the way we do things at the Fairplay School, about the philosophy of our democratic education, and about the environment for long-term emotional and social development we look to create.
As we register as an Alternative Learning Center, with our teachers set for a course later this month, she will be able to study for a High School Diploma. After that, we can look at Computer Engineering Courses and beyond.
Many of her kids are regulars at the Fairplay School and are sponsored with us. That also relieves the stress of looking after the kids during these hours, and the financial burden of public schools (here we have no uniforms, don’t require families to buy project materials, and outings are free).
Myra herself said, when asked what solutions there are to such poverty, “The parents here want livelihood. Especially for the women” (translated from Tagalog). There is a misconception about poor families being lazy or uneducated. In reality they work harder than almost anyone else, and the decisions they make are based on very real situations they face. They just want better opportunities. Families here work incredibly hard, but they’re being paid a quarter of the minimum wage to clean up our trash. They don’t want handouts, they want better work.
Myra is one example. In many ways Myra is lucky, compared to other families here and in other slums. In other ways we are the lucky ones to have her with us now. We look forward to working with Myra and similar mothers in Payatas here.
If you want to help more women like Myra and her family, then Contact Us or email us directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.