Escaping the Parent Trap

Addressing America’s fertility crisis happens to be what parents want.

Falling fertility will have numerous consequences for societies all around the world. Slower population growth will lead to rising inequality, growing prominence of inherited wealth, increasing monopoly power by existing firms, and a decline in entrepreneurship and innovation. Demand for new housing will stagnate. Intergenerational transfer programs like Social Security (or private life insurance, or even the stock market) will face financial troubles. Interest rates and inflation will stay preternaturally low, limiting options for recession-fighting and making every recovery slower than the one before it. Debates about immigration will become ever-more-rancorous.

These consequences all sound dire to policymakers, as they should, and they have motivated a global turn towards pronatalism. The number of countries which are officially committed to pronatalism has risen steadily over time, according to data from the United Nations. And indeed, academic evidence lends credence to the idea that government support for childbearing, especially in the form of direct cash grants, boosts fertility rates somewhat. But the price tag is very large: increasing the total number of babies born in a society can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million in public spending per extra baby born.

A major political problem also exists. A society may have many good reasons to want its families to have more children, but most don’t like the idea of asking people, or being asked, to have kids “for the nation.” And policymakers can also encounter what I call the paradox of pronatalism: painting a grim picture of the future is not much of a sales pitch, and if anything may discourage prospective parents.

'Unwanted childbearing' is receding as a global problem, while 'missing children' are becoming more prevalent.

Fortunately, a better approach is available. Pro-natal policy should be justified simply in terms of what people want—that is, desired childbearing. As fertility rates have declined around the world, they have reached a critical threshold: not the much-heralded “replacement rate” at which point the average woman’s childbearing will balance mortality in the long run, but the even-more-important “preferred fertility rate” at which the average woman is having the number of children she wants to have.

Today, the share of women saying they have fewer children than they want exceeds the share saying they have more children than they want. “Unwanted childbearing” is receding as a global problem, while “missing children” are becoming more prevalent.

[Note on Methodology]

In the United States, this picture has changed considerably over time. In the 1930s, after decades of decline, birth rates were far below what women reported wanting. They began rebounding in 1939 and then, when the G.I.’s returned home after World War II, the “Baby Boom” sent them rocketing to levels considerably above what most reproductive-age women reported as being ideal. This was an age of big families and early marriages—marriages which, statistically, ended in unprecedentedly high divorce rates. The subsequent rise of the modern feminist movement and modern youth culture was arguably a biproduct of the period’s historically unusual overshooting of desired fertility. But birth rates fell just as dramatically in subsequent decades so that, by the 1980s, birth rates were again undershooting women’s stated preferences. Beginning in the 2000s, the gap began widening, and it now stands at its highest level on record.

Data from the General Social Survey looks within aggregate preferences at the share of Americans having more or fewer children than they consider ideal. Women who finished their childbearing years in the 1950s and 1960s (generally born in the 1920s and 1930s) were especially likely to have unwanted children, whereas women finishing their childbearing in the 21st century (generally born in the 1960s and 1970s) were nearly twice as likely to undershoot their fertility goals as to overshoot them. Today, over one-third of women who have finished their childbearing report an ideal family size higher than their actual fertility. If current rates of childbearing continue for the next few decades, that figure could rise to half of all women.

The uncomfortable reality is that we are not making progress in helping women achieve their fertility goals. The share of women precisely achieving their goals has not changed in 40 years. We’ve swapped out unwanted childbearing for missing babies. That’s not liberation, just a tradeoff. Given the pent-up demand for childbearing, governments should target policy to address the preferred fertility rate. Rather than sketch doomsday scenarios, policymakers can make a simple and compelling pro-natal argument. They can say: most people want to have kids.

This argument often rubs my fellow pronatalists and conservatives the wrong way. For those of us who believe that transcendent communities stretching beyond our own lifespans are essential to the good life, and who desire to see higher birth rates partly to perpetuate such communities, articulating a pronatalism specifically about individual self-actualization, eschewing ideas of shared responsibility, can seem backwards. Doesn’t this shift toward individualism itself contribute to declining fertility? Shouldn’t it be confronted head-on? Isn’t the solution to low fertility to urge people toward a renewed commitment to marriage and family? Can adopting the basically liberal perspective that “this is what the people want, so we’ll give it to them” really be the answer, rather than an appeal to a higher principle?

By providing people with the tools to achieve the family desires they already espouse, we can create a society with higher fertility.

In liberal societies, it is perfectly reasonable for policymakers to say: Over 90% of people want to have children, and a rising share end up having fewer than they wanted. This is likely to have adverse outcomes for those people. We’d like to help them. Such uniformity of interest is rare on any issue, and where it exists, policymakers serve the public by advancing it. We should communicate that we provide benefits not as welfare, not as a defense against bad future outcomes, but because getting married and having kids is what most people want and what we are proud to want for them, and that their frequent failure to achieve it impoverishes not only them but all of us.

This is how American public policy often proceeds. The federal government subsidizes first-time homebuyers and offers the mortgage-interest deduction to most homeowners because the public thinks people should own houses. It provides food stamps because the public thinks that people shouldn’t go hungry. In a democratic republic like ours, the necessary and sufficient conditions for policy are and ought to be that the electorate desires it and the Constitution allows it. For it to be reasonably good policy, one additional criterion exists: that it is rationally oriented toward advancing the common good.

On this score, the answer is clear. By providing people with the tools to achieve the family desires they already espouse, we can create a society with higher fertility. We can in turn strengthen and perpetuate the transcendent communities that conservatives value and secure for parents the happiness, kinship, legacy, and fulfillment bolstered by having some kids, whom they can watch grow up in peace and prosperity.

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Lyman Stone

Lyman Stone is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Chief Information Officer of the population research firm Demographic Intelligence, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.