Few nights back, I joined my wife and my four-year old boy to watch our favourite TV programme, Bersamamu, on TV3. The show is dedicated to highlight the plight and quandary of poor families in Malaysia, and the noble works of munificent individuals and bodies in helping the poor, provides an excellent opportunity for someof us to understand and appreciate the life of those, whom are immobilised and deprived from full participation in the competitive and atrocious race of capitalism.
On personal account, Bersamamu has been an effective and perfect tool for me to remind my son not to waste his food during meal time, as there are folkswho had to ration theirs, let alone having few choices on the table. The show was about a family of nine children. The father performed all kind of jobs to make ends meet that includes rubber tapping, TV repairing and gardening. His wife was a full time homemaker and the family needs were hardly sustained by their average gross income of just around RM500 per month; that eventually impelled them to let go three of their members to adopted families.
Emotionally: it was a sad episode and my son nearly cried when I explained to him some of the children had left their parents and stayed with strangers. But, objectively and structurally, there are patterns, characteristics and distinguishing identities shared by that family and other families featured on Bersamamu, and one of that is a positive correlation between family size and poverty level.
But how true is that?
The answer to this obvious question is perhaps anobvious yes, as one can always apply the law of averaging. For example, for a family of three with an income of RM500 would result in income per capita of RM167, while an enlargement of that family to seven; will condense that average income from RM167 to RM71 or 57% reduction.
Another easiest and most obvious fashion to demonstrate the relationship between poverty and family size is to show the extent of poverty incidence by size of family.
On this depiction, Asian Development Bank Institute carried out a survey on the incidence of poverty by family size from 1985 to 2000 in Philippines, using the Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) and official poverty lines, and found a clear, constant and positive correlation between poverty level and family size. For instance, in 1985 the poverty incidence for a three-member household is 26.6 while it is 59.9 for a 9 or more-member household. Hardly surprising, fifteen years later in 2000, the incidence of poverty for athree-member household is 18.6, while the corresponding incidence for a 9 or more-member household is 57.3. This relationship has not changed over that 15 years, the study observed.
The study also found that the picture is virtually duplicated when one looks at both poverty gap and severity by family size as the average proportionate distance between the poverty line and the average income of the poor (the poverty gap) doubles as one moves from a four-member household to a 9 or more-member household. All of these indicators, thus show that no matter what poverty measure one uses, there is clear indication that poverty worsens as one moves from smaller to bigger family size households.
Then, why do poor people have big family size?
A poor family is more likely to have bigger size family size simply because of its poverty. The poor have no savings and no cushy, pensionable positions so they need children as an insurance against old age for more than the rich. If they own land, they can less easily afford to hire workmen at harvest time, or to mechanise, so they must rely more on the muscle power of their sons. If they are landless, they need the extra income that working children and youths can bring.
The poor lack education, and, by implication, become ignorant about effective method of birth control. In most southern Asia, Africa and the Middle East, birth rates have not come down for a reason: people actually want large families, and believe it is in their interest to have them. Too often, it is assumed that people out of each of clinics, condoms and pills are like rabbits, helplessly generating uncontrollable number of offspring.
They are not.
Every culture has some method of family planning,whether it is abortion, infanticide, prolonged breast-feeding or the universally known method of coitus interruptus and abstention. These were the means by which European countries dragged their birth rates down long before the advent of the pills.
The fact that they are not widely practiced points to one conclusion: these people are planning their families and they are planning for large ones.
On top of the above, some people choose to marry early and this contributes to population growth. Social researchers also agreed that one of the factors include low education level among the females.
The Chinese have a proverb on this: "One son is no son, two sons are an undependable son, and only threesons can be counted as a real son".
In conclusion, family size contributes to poverty level and propensity to poverty. What is needed is policy approach and comprehensive action plans to address this correlation, encompassing family planning education, supporting infrastructures, target group approach, female educational enhancement, support from religious bodies, policies to disincentive oversized family (as being practised by the Government and some companies on limitations for taxation allowance and medical benefit claims), among others.