a blog about philosophy in public affairs

How poverty antagonises the interests of children and those of women

This is a post about the difficulty of addressing a particular issue of justice that exists against a background of unjust economic and politic arrangements. It illustrates how attempts to rectify one kind of injustice risk to aggravate others.

All around the world there are lots of kids who spend many of their childhood years, and sometimes their entire childhood, without much face to face contact with the people who used to be their primary caregivers, and whom they still see as their parents. This happens as a result of temporary migration for work, of the kind that, for legal, economic and other pragmatic reasons, doesn’t allow migrant parents to take their children with them. Temporary migration has always existed, but it has been on the raise recently, thanks to the opening of labour markets and to the increased accessibility of long-distance travel. Moreover, temporary migration has become increasingly feminised due to the world-wide abundance of jobs in traditionally feminised sectors such as care for children, the ill, the elderly and menial work.

And this is the point where some of the trouble starts: parenting, too, is a traditionally feminised activity, especially the bits that have most to do with hands-on care, daily involvement and emotional support. It’s true that a new model of involved fatherhood is becoming popular in some of the richer countries in the world; but most temporary migrants come, for obvious reasons, from the poorer countries that also tend to be more gender conservative. Because mothers are usually the more involved parent, their migration (without the children) is bound to be harmful at least in one way: it deprives children of continuity in care. And children are generally believed to need continuity in care: severing a firmly established bond between children and parents represents significant harm to the child. No doubt, many of the migrants’ children also benefit from their parents’ migration, because parents usually send remittances that pay for better housing, education and creature comforts. It is hard to aggregate the benefits and harms that parental migration entails for children. Some studies suggest that these children are worse off with respect to educational achievements and social relationships with their peers, others deny it. Most studies I’ve seen tend to agree that, compared to their peers, migrants’ children suffer from more feelings of sadness, insecurity and isolation and from lack of adult guidance. So, even if migrants’ children are better off materially, this doesn’t take away from the fact that growing up with very little, and only sporadic, face to face contact with one’s parents is an important kind of deprivation. These children suffer an injustice.

But who is responsible for the injustice – who has the duty to prevent or mitigate it? It is their individual parents, to whom they are already attached, that children need, and so it seems that it is these individuals who should make things right. This is a difficult claim to make, for two reasons. First, on closer inspection, it often turns out that the mothers’, rather than the parents’, absence is most harmful. But isn’t it obviously unjust to blame women for ‘abandoning their children’, as the media often puts it? Why aren’t fathers equally involved in parenting in the first place, such that they become able to provide practically and emotionally for their children when mothers-only migrate? And, second, leaving this unjustified gender asymmetry to the side, in many cases it seems unjust to ask migrants to take the full responsibility for their children’s predicament. Temporary migrants usually cannot find proper – or any – work in their country or region of origin, and migrate in order to provide for basic necessities for themselves and their families. They do not abandon their children merely in order to keep up with the Joneses and, morally speaking, they don’t abandon their children at all; part of their reason to migrate is children’s wellbeing. Migrant parents merely find themselves in the impossibility to provide for all the important interests of their children: in continuity of care as well as in proper housing and reasonable economic security, for instance. It is not their fault that they cannot ensure all these things. And it would be too easy to say ‘they should not have had children under these conditions.’ Maybe it was not entirely their choice to become parents. Maybe they did not, and could not, foresee their current poverty or economic insecurity. And, in any case, it is unjust for people to find themselves in a situation in which they ought not to parent due to (collectively avoidable) economic circumstances.

What do you think?

I work on various issues concerning justice. I am particularly interested in the relevance of personal relationships to moral and political philosophy. I published papers about gender justice, parental rights and duties, the nature and value of childhood, the goods of work and the ideal-non-ideal theory debate.



Should Snowden go back to America?


Questioning the State


  1. Anca, thanks for this post! Can you clarify what notion of responsibility you have in mind? Do you have in mind a form of moral responsibility that connects to past actions? I wonder if it is possible (or even necessary) to assign such a responsibility. Or do you have in mind a forward-looking form of responsibility in the sense of „who can do something to change things?“? If it is the latter, you might end up with a shared responsibility of the countries to which these women migrate that do not allow them to bring their children with them, and the countries from which they migrate, which do not offer them any opportunity to find work at home.

  2. Hi Lisa, I mean moral rather than causal responsibility., as in who should do what to prevent the harming of children's interests, or at least mitigate the harm. I totally agree with you that both sending and receiving states should take responsibility. Ideally, people should not need to migrate to make a living. As a second best, they should be able to take their kids with them (and raise them in decent conditions.) But we miss the will to eradicate global inequality; and I became convinced that the second best solution is economically unfeasible. (My own view is that sending states should organise and fund robust counseling services for the kids and maybe the families in which they grow up.)

    The reason for writing the post is that I've been finding this topic extremely divisive. From one side, I felt pressures to downplay children's interest in care to avoid the immediate – and not entirely implausible – charge that parents are to be blamed. While of course other people find that parents are clearly in the wrong; a major Romanian party has recently suggested a law *banning* both parents from migrating at the same time.

  3. Anca, thanks! Two quick thoughts: first, isn't a big part of the problem that many of these migrating women work in semi-legal or illegal jobs (for example because the employers do not want to pay social security, etc.), which makes bringing children with them even harder? If they have a work permit and a regular employment, why wouldn't they be able to bring their kids with them (unless they do not want to, for good or bad reasons)? Second, and relatedly, given that first and second best solutions are lacking, what about the responsibility of those who employ these migrant workers? Don't they have an ancillary responsibility to do their best to make sure that these women have a chance to see their children as often as possible? (e.g. allowing for flexible working times, helping them pay the tickets for visits home, etc.)

  4. Lisa, great points; with respect to the first I am sure that legalisation and proper regulation of migrants' jobs would be overall a good idea. It's however very important to make sure the bureaucracy doesn't get out of hand: many people go at short notice, as opportunities appear, and opportunities – especially when it comes to seasonal work – don't wait. But this doesn't mean everyone can bring the kids: if you're geographically very mobile all the time and/or perform a job that requires high flexibility you probably cannot look after the children properly (plus the transition costs may make the attempt to bring the children economically non-viable.)

    On the second point, I think employers actually have (moral) duties to make some allowances for the migrants' family duties (legalisation is sometimes tricky, think of migrants who live in with their employers for instance). But actually having to pay the costs of children joining their migrant parents or regular visits will, I guess, make employing migrants a non-starter. Which would back-fire on the worse off in this story, i.e. the migrants (and their children.)

  5. A devils advocate answer:

    It is clear that every actor you describe has a role in this injustice. I agree though that a first best solution is unlikely to emerge. I would argue that we are potentially quite close to a second best solution currently.

    Parents have very strong incentives to care about the upbringing of their child. They should also be in the best position to make the judgement of how best to support their children. If they choose to take migrant work then I would assume they have built into this the cost of being away from their child and weighed this against the pay benefits received. As such, those who believe their children will be made better off take such work and those who believe otherwise wont.

    Statistical evidence will always be merky here due to a lack of counterfactual (how well off would the child have been otherwise?) and self selection bias (Those who choose to take migratory work are often in uncomparable socio-economic situations from comparator groups).

    Further requirements on those employing migrants will likely disincentivise hiring them (causing the child to suffer if we believe that the work for their parent would benefit them).

    There may be an argument for subsidy of migratory work (which could be through childcare in the home state) due to the extensive benefits it typically brings (There is a lot of evidence that migratory work is especially beneficial to developing countries). This being said – since we are already worried about the amount of time parents spend away from their children do we really wish to incentivise that further?

  6. Thanks Will, not sure where's the devil here 🙂 I think there are two points you make that I disagree with, or at least am unconvinced by. First, I think different, possibly incommensurable goods are relevant to welfare – and, at least in the case of children, to justice: relevant here are the material benefits children get from their parents' migration vs. discontinuity in care. Of course the latter is better than starving, but I don't know how to compare them above the starving threshold. Anyway, I think that even if the kids are better off than they'd be in the absence of the parents' migration, they're still significantly harmed.

    Second, I think that what you're saying in your second para would be true only for agents significantly more rational *and* more knowledgeable than most of us are in fact. A bit of separation – three months, maybe half an year – may be insignificant to the child's wellbeing; many migrants leave for these kinds of jobs; then find another job of the same, then another. Not necessarily knowing how they will add up in terms of the child's wellbeing. Indeed, not necessarily knowing what are the costs, including the opportunity costs, involved in the decision to migrate.

  7. Great post Anca ! I'd like to answer/problematise the notion of family with regard to whose responsibility it is to raise children. It seems to me that we are all assuming a rather homogenous notion of the nuclear family in our discussion. Prior to the 18th century (at least in Europe), the idea of a nuclear family did not exist. There was a much broader notion of family/responsibility for raising children distributed between genders/generations etc. As mortality rates were higher, it was normal that one or more adults responsible for child rearing might disappear and as such there was always many more partners involved. As the nuclear family plays a key role in the rise of capitalism, it is important to consider that other forms of family organizations have been marginalized. nonetheless, and this is purely anecdotal, it does seem that societies that have long histories of migration have refused the nuclear family structure as a means to both support children and permit parents to migrate temporarily. So in one sense I think this problem can be resolved by continuing to deconstruct our assumptions about the best form of family and to allow a certain creativity and flexibility that will allow for other care-givers both male and female rather than reducing families to a minimal state-manageable structure that puts immense pressure financially and pedagogically on two parents, traditionally one female and one male. But this does not take away from the importance of considering the responsibility for this injustice that is structural. The fact that many women feel they must migrate and work abroad, often illegally, indicates clearly that they are being oppressed and limited in their places of birth which makes the state responsible for addressing this problem.

  8. Anya, I agree with you that the nuclear family is not ideal. Actually, I go further than that: I think (and argued elsewhere) that all children should have some robust nonparental care as a matter of justice. And there's inspiring work done on how well three parent families work. However: unless and until children grow up with more than one or two primary figures, isn't it problematic if they must grow up without them? (I don't want to fetishise the official/legal parent: if a child is already being raised by grandparents or uncles or neighbours I see no continuity-of-care problem if both parents migrate).

  9. As the discussion goes on, I start to wonder what exactly the *specific* issue here is. Obviously, there is an injustice in that individuals are forced (by economic injustices) to do things that they would not otherwise do, and to which they can make legitimate claims. But this is a more general problem of poverty and unequal access to the conditions of a minimally decent life. It seemed to me that Anca was hinting towards something more specific, namely the injustice towards the children. Anya rightly raises the point of the extended family (or social network) coming in. So assume a child grows up with the grandmother and wider family, supported by flows of money from the parents who are abroad, and doesn't suffer any deprivation. There would still be an injustice towards the parents who cannot realize their conception of the good life, but that's the more general injustice of poverty and unequal opportunity (and would have to be addressed as such, i.e. structurally). Or am I missing something?

  10. You're right Lisa, the specific issue I wanted to bring up was the injustice to children. If the grandmother was the primary caregiver before the parents' migration (as it's the case, sometimes, in Romania for instance) than no problem. But if the grandmother was only a close family member at the time of migration, and the child had already formed a strong bond to the migrating parents, as it's also often the case, then the child is deprived of continuity in care. And this is the case independently of whether or not parental migration happens against a background of economic injustice.

  11. Anca, great post & fascinating topic. Not sure I have a very pointed question, but a couple of reflections. The first relates to the discussion begun with Lisa above on responsibility. Here, although I do not think host countries and employers are exempt of responsibilities, I wonder whether we might also point some spotlight on those not already involved, such as the countries and companies that do not have many migrant employees. Assuming some general duty to assist those in poverty, one might argue that those hosting/employing migrants are, at least, doing something to meet this duty – to wit, some financially beneficial employment. Whereas, those who take less migrant workers are not doing this much, and maybe very little at all. Perhaps we should be pushing for them to contribute more in some way. It is not totally clear how such a duty unfolds in this case, but it does strike me that the concern in question is general rather than special, so I would be somewhat inclined to think that we should turn some focus on those presently doing less to resolve on-going problems. Perhaps they should be attributed the responsibility to fund the home country care programmes you suggest.

    The second thought relates to a question about getting into the details of the account of the injustice suffered here. You end your penultimate paragraph with the thought that the major injustice is that ‘growing up with very little and sporadic face to face contact with one’s parents is an important kind of deprivation’. I agree, but it made me think: ‘very little and sporadic contact’ is quite a low line. Perhaps that is the relevant line. I do not know much by way of studies, but of people I know who have experienced this kind of scenario, ‘moderate and irregular’ contact has not been such a problematic line; indeed, sometimes variation in care-givers has had some benefits in terms of ability to cope with other changing social settings and more comfort with circumstances that others can find isolated and insecure. If so, I wonder whether we could consider various halfway solutions, such as trying to ensure some portion of time with parents and children together, rather than, say, trying to ensure parents and children are consistently together. For instance, I think I might find the duty on parents more palatable if it were a more moderate duty to ensure they are away for only some part of a year and I guess it might be easier to work through existing legal regimes to guarantee even migrant workers some form of secure leave than changes in visa regulations. Not really sure whether the ideas more moral or practical sense; just trying to clarify my thought. Essentially, that some more precise details on the dimensions of the exact disadvantage that constitutes an injustice might aid the search for the right solution.

  12. Thank you Andrew, this is very interesting. I didn't think before about the responsibility of those who do *not* employ migrants – probably because it it not clear in the first place that those who employ them treat them fairly; and then the urgent issue seems to be how to make the working and living conditions of migrants as fair as possible without killing the incentive to employ them in the first place. But I think it's a thought worth considering.

    I agree it's important to specify better what the children's interest is in, in order to seek policy solutions. The migrants I had in mind in this post (i.e. the ones about whom I know a bit) see their kids once, maybe twice a year if they migrate to a neighbour country, to as rarely as once every few years, if their country of destination is across an ocean (for instance, migrants from the Philippines). And then there's the question of how much phoning and teleconferencing can make up for the physical separation.

  13. Let's see if I can find the devil that eluded Will:

    Like Andrew, I think I'd like to hear a little more about precisely where the injustice lies. It seems to me that the fact that some children are worse off than others need not amount to an injustice. A la Clayton, some inequalities may be just. I'd be interested to hear what you make of this way of thinking about it: In order to qualify as an educational injustice at least one of two conditions must be met: either (1) the inequality you identify must be particularly grevious; or (2) the inequality you identify must itself result from an injustice. I'm not familiar with the literature, but it seemed from your post that the inequalities are not so egregious as to qualify as an injustice according to (1). To put this in terms of a question: Are the inequalities generated by migration more grevious than those generated by bed-time story reading (which I take it is a permissible practice)? If not, then it seems that we cannot regard the outcome as unjust according to (1). This leaves us with (2). However, if the injustice that you identify is traceable to a prior injustice this seems to dissolve the problem somewhat. This is because it is surely the perpetrators of the initial injustice that are to be held liable for the harmful effects of that injustice. If the injustice you identify is simply a particular ramification of global injustice, then it is surely those who are responsible for global injustice who are responsible for this injustice.

  14. Hi Tom, not sure what to say because not sure what prompted your comment: nowhere in the post do I frame the problem in terms of inequalities between migrants' children and other children – or, in general, inequalities in children's treatment. Indeed, I believe that children whose parents do not migrate also suffer from discontinuity in care from various reasons – I focus on migrants' kids because of the particular difficulty of discussing their situation without entrenching sexism.

    So the injustice is that the children in question do not receive something that is owed to them, i.e. continuity in care. For a discussion of why this is so important see, for instance Anne Alstott's book 'No Exit'.

    Then a different issue is: assuming they miss out on continuity in care as a necessary condition to receive other, and perhaps more important goods – such as better housing or education – can one still claim that they are harmed? On the account of harm I think I favour yes, they can.

  15. Thank you for a very interesting post, Anca. Following up on your response to Andrew, I would be interested to hear more about how you conceive of the demand of fairness in the relationship between migrant workers and their employers. You point at the possibility that fair treatment may conflict with the incentive to employ migrant workers in the first place. This made me wonder, is it a conceptual possibility, on your view, that fair treatment may require employers to make a net sacrifice (e.g. by paying wages that exceed the profit generated as a result of the employment)? Such an account of fairness, it seems to me, would face a significant challenge in explaining why the demand in question should be thought to be grounded in the employment relationship. (Apart from the fact that they would lack any economic incentive to act accordingly, why should employers be thought to be under a special moral duty to make an altruistic sacrifice while companies – or any other moral agents for that matter – that do not employ migrant workers are free of any such duty?) If, on the other hand, the demand of fairness is thought to be constrained by the economic limits within which the employment relationship is mutually advantageous, there seems to be no guarantee that a fair wage will be sufficient to meet any independently defined needs, including the needs of migrant workers’ children.

  16. Tom a few responses:

    Firstly I personally would suspect that the harm done by not having contact with your parents was significantly more than that done by not being read bed time stories.

    Secondly while I agree its always best to address inequalities upstream, I believe this conversation is premised on the idea that we lack the will to eliminate global inquality, but there is still some flexibility around migration policy where we might be able to partially correct these injustices (I think Anca says something similar in a comment above?)

  17. Florian, I'm glad you prompt me on this, thanks. I see no reason to exclude the conceptual possibility that fair treatment may require employers to make a net sacrifice – along the lines suggested by Andrew above. But this is not what I had in mind; rather, I was thinking of two issues, one more general one more particular and in fact illustrating the first. 1. Many migrants take jobs that are unattractive for the locals, presumably on account of the pay and/or working conditions. Perhaps these features make the respective jobs unfair (this will of course depend on your account of fair exchange – is mutual agreement enough?), and pressure to improve either pay or conditions may disincentivise the employment of migrant, rather than local, workers. 2. Some – much? – of the work done by migrant women is care work; they are privately employed and often live in the employer's home (if they look after children, elderly or seriously disabled individuals). Their services are often needed in order to free all adults in the respective home to seek employment themselves, and migrants are employed on the premise that they will be more or less *always* on call. (Pretty awful stuff, if you read the literature.) Building into the migrants' jobs requirements of sufficient flexibility, including time (and money, if one follows Lisa's suggestion) to visit their own kids regularly will make it very expensive for the employers to employ migrants. Indeed, it would make it rational for employers to employ local workers, who can visit their family without traveling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén