Octomom Nadya Suleman: 14 and Counting?

Nadya Suleman, also known as “Octomom,” has been speculated as having a compulsive hoarding disorder. However, unlike other popular depictions of hoarders in the media, Suleman – you guessed it – is collecting children. At 36 years old, Octomom is not just the mother of the longest surviving octuplets but, at the time of her fifth successful in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment in 2008, she was already a mother of six. This controversial topic has many facets and as such the following analysis is limited to the most salient policy implications.

After vowing in 2010 to never use social assistance, the single mother of 14 recently announced that she is receiving $2,000 a month from the state of California for the purchase of food. If having to live with the consequences of her reckless decision was not challenging enough, Octomom has also received death threats from the public and faces eviction after being in arrears on her mortgage.

Although many feel that it is unjust for taxpayers to fund the poor financial and life choices of Suleman, basic economic theory highlights that the provision of a public good such as social assistance is often victim to the free rider problem. In this case, it can be argued that Octomom is exploiting the public policy but that the particulars of her circumstance continue to remain a gross exception to the norm. As such, although this case forms the premise of an interesting debate, it does not warrant revisiting the intended purpose of the policy unless it leads to the under-production or excessive use of social assistance on a societal level.

Furthermore, the alternative of invasive family planning policies, comparable to those seen in China, seems unpalatable. By extrapolation, if deemed sufficiently problematic, the U.S. could employ a strategy which directly correlates family income with the right to conception.  However, the Chinese one child policy has been preferential for years to rich families who can afford to pay the fines. Widening the social divide and impinging on people’s liberty to save a couple thousand dollars a month, used to feed children, seems like a disproportionate response to the situation.

In fact, the vitriolic public response to Suleman’s announcement is shameful. To put it in perspective, in order to feed everyone in her household, averaged over the course of a year, Octomom receives a whopping $4.38/day. Using the Big Mac Index, this enables Suleman to buy one McDonald’s Big Mac a day for herself and each of her children on the public dime. In comparison, the Legislative Analyst’s Office states that it “costs an average of about $47,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in prison in California” all of which is funded by taxpayers. Although the analogy may seem extreme, the media has successfully made a spectacle of Octomom and agitated citizens without putting her impact on their wallets in perspective.

Lastly, as mentioned in my PolicyMic article about cosmetic plastic surgery, rising medical consumerism transforms the relationship between patient and physician into a profit-driven enterprise. The reality that Suleman was even able to repeatedly access IVF is indicative of the ill health of the medical provision system. In a public health care model, the physician may have had greater concern for the patient’s well-being rather than being motivated solely by the acquisition of money. In conclusion, this case epitomizes the fundamental debate between the importance of liberty, the prevalence of antisocialist sentiments and the over-commodification of American lifestyles supported by excessive spending.