Britain to "Pay" Moms to Breastfeed: Is This Fair?
Bribery isn't always a bad thing. Read why a new pilot program in the UK is ruffling critics' feathers, but aiming to spur important social change.
British breastfeeding rates, already among the lowest in the world, are declining for the first time in nearly a decade. Now, a government-funded research initiative hopes to reverse the trend by providing shopping vouchers to a small group of moms in low-income areas as an incentive to breastfeed their babies.
The plan has stirred up a storm of controversy (Shocker). For one thing, critics say it amounts to “bribery,” which seems to me to be kind of the point. The UK also provides financial incentives to families who vaccinate their children, because, ostensibly, the government feels there’s a benefit to public health in doing so. Breastfeeding has been proven to reduce health costs over the long term (This is one reason why, here in the States, the AAP has suggested that breastfeeding success should be a priority for pediatricians, workplaces and communities … Moms aren’t in it alone). In the UK, where health care costs are in fact footed by the government, it’d make sense that the powers-that-be would take an active interest – and role – in encouraging a practice that bodes for future generations’ better health. Sometimes bribery is necessary in order to form new habits (We parents call it “positive incentives”).
It could also be argued that the plan doesn’t amount to bribery at all, but, in fact, simply introduces a new government benefit. No one’s accusing the government in Denmark of bribing moms into having babies by providing them with a full year of paid maternity leave. Instead, we envy that their social system recognizes and supports the difficult work of parenting, and wish our own governments could be so progressive.
Anyway, back in Britain, critics are also claiming that rewarding moms who breastfeed will penalize those who don’t. This hardly merits any air-time, but let’s take a quick look: This is familiar territory in the “breastfeeding wars.” But supporting breastfeeding moms is not the same as hating on non-nursing moms, just as supporting feminist principles and policies – equal opportunities and pay for women, for example – isn’t harmful to men. A penalty for not breastfeeding would involve taking money away from those moms who don’t, or can’t, do it. This is not the same thing.
In fact, the areas where the pilot program is taking place are areas where breastfeeding is stigmatized, and even considered “immoral.” So breastfeeding moms in these areas already suffer social penalties for their choice. Having supportive programs in place can only serve to level the field.
Lastly, critics have decried the program as a poor use of taxpayer money. I’ll refer those in this camp to the topic of public health. (See above.) Furthermore, the money involved is minimal, as the program is only, at this point, a test with limited reach. Only 130 moms are participating; each can earn a maximum of 200 British pounds in vouchers. That money is an investment. As Professor Laurence Moore, of the National Prevention Research Initiative said, ‘This is a feasibility study – we don’t know if it will be effective or not. It’s worth finding out whether such a novel intervention might work.’” I completely agree – an experiment with the potential to improve the health of moms and babies, as well as shift outdated (and sexist) social mores, is worth spending money on. And if it works, requiring a greater expenditure as a result of the program’s expansion? That would be a worthy investment, too.
YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN