“Octomom” and the racial double standard

Social Security’s right-wing critics like to argue that a program guaranteeing a minimal income in old age undermines the family by discouraging working people from having children—and that the resulting decline in the birthrate undermines Social Security. Yet, the right also likes to vilify people of color who have too many children. Could it be that we’ve got a double standard here?

Remember when Nadya Suleman was always in the news ? Perhaps you remember her by her media epithet: Octomom.

Suleman was the 33-year-old Los Angeles mother of six who, in 2009, gave birth to octuplets after receiving fertility treatments, allegedly to qualify for more government assistance and launch a reality-TV career. Single and unemployed, “Octomom” became the focus of bobble-head media outrage in the early years of the Great Recession, a ready target for pundits looking for a way—any way—to deflect attention from the sins of the Wall Street elite. To the reliably quotable Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, Suleman was “dizzy, selfish,” the living symbol of America’s national decline. Her statements that she never meant to give birth to octuplets—plausible though they were—somehow never seemed to convince mainstream journalists in possession of what they thought was a story.

What does all this have to do with Social Security? We’ll get to that shortly. But first, an update on one of the more remarkable media circuses of the past few years.

Octomom was in the news again recently, when she pleaded no contest to having failed to report $30,000 of income after going on the state and county welfare rolls in January 2013. Once again, she became a target for gibes at her alleged irresponsibility and apparent eagerness to exploit The System. And again, no one in the mainstream media seemed to pay much attention to her actual circumstances, which were that for five years Suleman had been trying—desperately, and with not much support from our supposedly overgenerous welfare system—to manage a very difficult personal situation.

She had reportedly received $169,000 in disability between 2000 and 2008—a figure the media seized on as a scandal, but a mere $21,000 a year to support herself and six previous children. Since then, she had tried everything from proposing a book and exercise videos (they fell through), making a pornographic movie, trying her hand at singing, and even, creepily, becoming a poster child for spaying and neutering for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It got uglier: Attempting to get some control over her public image, Suleman hired a publicist, Joann Killeen—who quit after she received more than 100 graphic email and phone threats.

Of course, Suleman could just get a job, right? As if. As she herself explained,

O.K., think about the reality of that situation: I leave, I go to work, I’m away from them all day, I make — how much? $15,000 a year? O.K., I need that at least every two months. So, how on earth is that going to work? That’s absurd. You live in my life one day and you’ll see, you’ll realize: it’s ludicrous.

The double standards abound: Suleman is disparaged for attempting to use her celebrity to raise money for her family—for example, by participating in a pornographic video. Yet Kim Kardashian, the scion of a wealthy family in the same part of the country, is praised for the finesse with which she leveraged the release of a sex tape of herself and her boyfriend to build a valuable entertainment-and-fashion empire. Nevertheless, and despite declaring bankruptcy in 2012, Suleman managed to pay the bulk of the money she owed the state and county for public assistance.

The deeper irony, however, is that Octomom ought to be a hero to right-wing critics of Social Security who have been claiming for years that a falling birthrate is making the program unaffordable. Writes long-time critic Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former principal deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration:

Social Security sabotages itself. It discourages work, diminishes saving, penalizes delayed retirement, and even lowers the birth rate—all of which undermine the health of the economy and its ability to support Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Or, if you like your rhetoric a bit more high-octane, here’s what a 2007 report from the anti-abortion Population Research Institute had to say:

It is unfortunately true that the homosexual movement, radical feminism, and careerism have had a negative impact on fertility. Still, the primary causes of this solvency-destroying reduction in the birthrate have been contraception and its murderous sequella, abortion.

If America is to support an aging population, we need to have more children, the right seems to be saying—but only as long as that “we” is narrowly defined. The hysteria over a woman of color, in dire straits, trying not very effectively to support herself and her unexpectedly large household, forces us to look again at the impact of racism and class prejudice on programs like Social Security.

Not so coincidentally, the attack against Social Security in policymaking circles began in the late 60s and early 70s, roughly coinciding with the Nixonian backlash against the civil rights movement. Conservatives had always regarded the social insurance structure of Social Security and Medicare as a fraud, a way to dress up what were really “welfare” giveaways as something more broad-based. Accordingly, economists like James Buchanan and Milton Friedman and policy heads like Peter Ferrara launched their critiques of Social Security at about the same time that welfare came under attack as a mistaken policy of “coddling” the poor.

In popular discourse, however, the attack on welfare was an attack on the people who tended to receive it—people of color in particular. More recently, we’ve had the odd phenomenon of a Tea Party movement steered by vehement opponents of Social Security, while polls have found that the majority of rank-and-file members support the program—while opposing aid to “undeserving” parties. Another indication of the temper of the time is the recent ruling by an Ohio appeals court that Asim Taylor, an African-American man, cannot have any more children unless he pays some $100,000 in overdue child support for his four existing offspring—essentially, his attorney said, violating his right to engage in sexual intercourse.

Yet, compare the reception of Suleman’s children with that of the famous Dionne quintuplets, who in 1934 became instant celebrities and objects of fawning media fascination—and who were generously, if overbearingly, funded by the state and various nonprofits, meanwhile raking in fees from tourism and three Hollywood films. (The Dionne parents had 14 children in all—the same number as Nadya Suleman.) By contrast, the doctor who delivered Suleman’s children was threatened with revocation of his medical license on grounds of “gross negligence.”

Of course, there’s the possibility that if she had played her hand better, the Suleman octuplets could be enjoying a different kind of fame today. The first time octuplets were born in the US, to Nigerian immigrants Nkem Chukwu and Iyke Louis Udobi, 11 years before Suleman, the birth was hailed as a miracle. The happy parents and their seven offspring—one died a week later—became international celebrities in the positive sense, headlining an international “Promoting Healthy Families” tour at about the same time Suleman was giving birth. Udobi was quoted approvingly as saying, “If you can take care of one, you can take care of eight.”

Why the different receptions? For one thing, the Chukwu quints were born before two financial and economic meltdowns drew the media into another scattershot search for anyone but the culprits to blame. Secondly, Chukwu and the husband were married and took care to invoke God as much as possible in discussing their gift. All eight received names that invoke God in the Igbo tongue. Suleman, by contrast, never wrapped herself in the cloak of family and religious values in discussing her situation.

If we’re talking about Social Security, however, why are Suleman’s—or Taylor’s—children any less valuable than anyone else’s in the effort to keep the program solvent? Only if they don’t receive the education, health care, and other resources needed to have productive lives. If they don’t receive those things, whose fault is that?

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