Seeing Like a Pro-Family State

Addressing our fertility and family-formation crises will require us to push the boundaries of family policy and embrace a whole-of-society approach.

| Feb 24, 2021

Thomas Malthus published his famous Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 — just in time for it to become obsolete. The principle he offered was based on a simple enough observation: population growth is exponential, while growth in agricultural output is linear. Increases in agricultural output per worker can therefore only ever produce temporary improvements in standards of living. With populations destined to swell in response, any surplus is quickly devoured, pulling society back into a state of subsistence.

One can be forgiven for failing to foresee the Industrial Revolution, much less the rapid demographic transition that followed our technological advancement. But Malthusian attitudes and policies persisted at great cost. In the aftermath of the Second World War, leaders in politics, business, and philanthropy undertook a campaign to curb what they saw as a coming overpopulation crisis, culminating in Neo-Malthusian treatises like Paul Ehrlich’s 1968, The Population Bomb. With the advent of new and longer-acting forms of contraception, governments and major foundations pushed for the adoption of population controls, both domestically and abroad.

To this day, governments and NGOs spend billions of dollars every year promoting what are euphemistically referred to as “family planning” programs. These may make some sense in the developing country context—though even there, their value is worth questioning. Indeed, the risk from these programs is not that they fail, but that they prove too successful. As we know from China’s experiment with the One Child Policy, crushing fertility rates is far easier than building them back up. In the demographic tug of war, anti-natalists thus have the inertia of policy choices made generations ago on their side.

If we are to learn anything from Malthus’s mistake, then, it is simply the importance of looking forward. And as we look ahead to our increasingly post-industrial future, there is no excuse for ignoring the population crisis that’s coming. The next century, however, looks to turn Malthus on his head, with linear or even negative population growth coinciding with unprecedented economic abundance.

Today’s leaders in politics, business and philanthropy ought to confront the mistakes of their predecessors, and embark on a whole-of-society campaign to bootstrap post-industrial nations out of their fertility malaise. The United States is the ideal country to lead the natalist charge, not least due to the propensity for our policy innovations to diffuse internationally. While the U.S. fertility rate has hit a record low, it remains markedly higher than in Europe and much of Asia. Combined with our large and growing fertility gap (the difference between desired and actual fertility), this makes the U.S. the single best hope for demonstrating that fertility decline can be arrested if not outright reversed, restoring our birth rate to replacement levels and beyond.

Family policy advocates must therefore embrace a whole-of-society approach, both to activate the cultural antecedents of family formation, and in recognition of our fundamental uncertainty about what, if anything, works.

To combat climate change, we can put a price on carbon. To promote productive investment, we can allow businesses to expense machinery and equipment. But how can public policy successfully encourage family formation and childbirth? There is no obvious button to press or lever to pull to affect behaviors as personal and culturally mediated as the decision to start a family. Family policy advocates must therefore embrace a whole-of-society approach, both to activate the cultural antecedents of family formation, and in recognition of our fundamental uncertainty about what, if anything, works.

Consider the remarkable finding that U.S. laws that raised the age children are required to ride in car seats resulted in some 145,000 fewer births since 1980, with 90 percent of the decline occurring since 2000. The effect is driven by fewer third-borns among car-owning families, consistent with car seat laws — and the scarce space that car seats occupy — as a binding constraint on family size aspirations. The paper, “Car Seats as Contraception,” made a splash when it first appeared last summer. And while 145,000 fewer births across several decades is a miniscule fertility loss in the grand scheme of things, one is left wondering what other laws and regulations are out there creating similar unintended consequences with potentially large cumulative effects.

The dearth of research on the determinants of fertility stands in stark contrast to the voluminous literature on strategies for minimizing reproduction. Take the Guttmacher Institute, which was founded in 1968 as Planned Parenthood’s Center for Family Planning Program Development before going independent in 2007. Guttmacher is a primary source for research and policy analysis on abortion and reproductive health, producing data that is often more comprehensive than government sources. Indeed, with a $19 million annual budget, including millions of dollars in federal grants spanning decades, there is no question that Guttmacher’s research is of a very high caliber — “Evidence You Can Use,” as their website puts it. Yet with teen birth rates at record lows and the AIDS crisis a thing of the past, is it so unreasonable to question the use-value of evidence oriented to outdated concerns?

Defunding Guttmacher is not the point. That may play well for pro-life activists and culture warriors, but it doesn’t move the ball forward toward the development of serious, ideologically distinct, 21st-century alternatives. The first step for a whole-of-society approach to family policy is thus the creation of new research institutions and funding streams dedicated to generating evidence and policy analysis on the causes of fertility decline with the same rigor and intensity — and access to federal dollars — as the anti-natal incumbents.

Greater knowledge production can help establish which policies are consistent with a growing population and which are not, but that evidence will be moot so long as our conventional methods for assessing policies fail to treat the creation of human life as an intrinsic benefit. Recoil at its cold utilitarianism all you like, but cost-benefit analysis is an indispensable tool of modern governance. A forest-eye view requires a forest-level analysis, even if one recognizes that every forest is in fact an ensemble of individually sacrosanct trees.

For its part, the U.S. government puts the monetary value of a human life at around $10 million. This is then used as the key parameter for evaluating the cost-effectiveness of everything from railroad safety regulations to new drug approvals. Yet names can be misleading. While often called the “value of a statistical life” or VSL, the less-common nomenclature, “value of preventing a fatality” or VPF, is far more accurate. In fact, VSL does not even attempt to capture the value of creating an additional life, per se.

If we’re to treat the fertility crisis with equal urgency, policymakers must not be afraid to apply the tools and processes of the administrative state to pro-family ends.

Conventional cost-benefit analysis, as a creature of neoclassical economics, is inherently subjectivist. To avoid metaphysical pronouncements on the intrinsic value of anything in particular, economists are forced to derive the value of a statistical life by studying the revealed preferences of their fellow man. If, for example, you’re willing to pay X more dollars for a car whose safety features reduce your risk of dying in an accident by Y percent relative to the next best alternative, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will use that fact to impute the implied value you put on your own life, and write safety regulations accordingly. In the neoclassical paradigm, the unborn only have value insofar as they enter into the utility function of an already-sentient human being. Thus, the fact that car seat laws prevented an estimated 8,000 births in 2017 is given essentially zero weight relative to the 57 premature deaths they averted nationwide, despite the fact that 8,000 is obviously a much bigger number than 57.

In 2009, the Obama administration convened 12 federal agencies to construct an estimate of the social cost of carbon. While carbon does have a social cost, the decision to institutionalize an official estimate was nonetheless inseparable from President Obama’s pre-existing belief in the urgency of addressing climate change. If we’re to treat the fertility crisis with equal urgency, policymakers must not be afraid to apply the tools and processes of the administrative state to pro-family ends.

Treating the value of a life-created symmetrically with the foregone value of a life-lost is just the most obvious place to start. Indeed, this seemingly simple change would have immediate, cascading effects on the policy orientation of every executive branch agency, spurring demand for new research methods and helping to quantify the anti-fertility biases of existing policies and programs.

Speaking as a 29-year-old, there is no greater incentive to start a family than seeing my friends from high school and college adorn my social media with adorable baby photos. I once had the opportunity to talk about this truism with one of Facebook’s in-house demographers at a conference we were both attending. In the past, Facebook conducted experiments to demonstrate how tweaking their News Feed to show happier content produced a happiness social contagion across their users. Why not, I suggested, tweak the algorithm to test whether family-friendly content influenced fertility decisions? The demographer was nonplussed, but is that really such a crazy idea? If social contagion effects are an inevitable byproduct of how the internet works more generally, better for Facebook’s users to storm the fertility clinic than the U.S. Capitol.

Jokes aside, the power of peer effects on family formation is already extremely well established. The social dimension of fertility may also help to explain why pecuniary incentives for childbirth tend to be so underwhelming—at least when enacted on their own. The reverse is likely true, as well, to the extent that declining average family sizes and the absence of infant children in the lives of many adults exerts a subtle downward pressure on fertility norms. San Francisco, for example, is now home to more pet dogs than children under age 18, as families flee to locations with lower costs-of-thriving and less deranged school boards. As the head of any large family will attest, raising a gaggle of children in the context of widespread childlessness is often an invitation for outright social hostility, from accusations of being a religious nutjob to the microaggression of dinner parties without a kids’ table.

But if paired with a strong pro-family cultural message, a monthly child allowance would also serve as a powerful signal about what we value as a society, helping to shift the zeitgeist.

Peer effects are yet another reason for family policy to take a whole-of-society approach, starting at the top. A universal child allowance, for example, would put a massive dent in child poverty, make family life more affordable, and enable the elimination of marriage tax penalties. But if paired with a strong pro-family cultural message, a monthly child allowance would also serve as a powerful signal about what we value as a society, helping to shift the zeitgeist. Studies suggest that an additional baby is born for every $100,000 spent on direct child benefits. That may sound like a small marginal effect, but remember the U.S. government considers a human life to be worth one-hundred-times that amount!

In Israel, the national government provides families with a monthly child allowance, paid leave to care for sick children, and labor laws that promote part-time, flexible positions. Following a four-month maternity leave, mothers are even entitled to take an hour out of every workday to care for their child, what’s known as “parenting hour.” Any one of these policies may be worth doing on their own, but in combination they have helped orient every strata of Israeli society toward a healthy work-family balance.

Moving below the federal level, state policymakers can do a lot to reinforce a cultural recognition of the family. Consider that between 1980 and 2010, the number of Americans with a criminal record roughly quadrupled, from 5 million to 20 million. As Nicholas Eberstadt notes, the explosive rise in criminal sentencing over the past half-century was “on a scale unlike anything witnessed in other Western societies in modern times,” creating a “vast and largely invisible army of felons and ex-prisoners” who are “disproportionately high school dropouts, disproportionately native-born, and disproportionately black.” To call this a contributing factor to the breakdown of African-American families is an understatement. Men are incarcerated at a much higher rate than women, creating imbalanced sex ratios in minority communities that have persistent negative effects on marriage and fertility. Besides incarcerating fewer black men in the first place, state policymakers can take steps to improve child-parent visitation policies in prisons within their jurisdiction. 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent who’s incarcerated. What kind of message does it send about the importance of the family if they’re forced to grow up without their father in their lives?

A whole-of-society effort to crush fertility got us in this population hole, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a whole-of-society effort to dig us out.

State policymakers are also in the best position to influence education policy. Higher education is correlated with reduced fertility, in particular, not just because college-educated women are more likely to prioritize their careers, but also because education is itself time-consuming. It is remarkably easy for women to fall short of their fertility aspirations by simply delaying their first pregnancy, not fully appreciating the risks of infertility and medical complications that arise from attempting childbirth at an advanced maternal age. Beyond shortening the time it takes to earn a diploma, states could do more to coax their colleges and universities to invest in family and childcare services for students and tenure-track faculty alike.

At the local level, mayors and city councils can take proactive steps to ensure their cities are hospitable to families, rather than let them become playgrounds for the young and the restless while families are forced into interminable commutes. Land-use restrictions that limit the supply of housing are known to lower fertility, and cities already use “inclusive zoning” policies to mandate a certain number of affordable units in otherwise expensive apartments. Why not adopt analogous “family zoning” policies that require apartment developers to reserve a certain number of units for tenants with children? Financial incentives could even be provided for developers that install childcare facilities on-site.

The net effect that these and similar policies would have on U.S. rates of marriage and fertility is presently unknown. Yet with the world’s biological clock ticking, we don’t have time to run dozens of controlled experiments to find out. Instead, it’s incumbent on the Anti-Malthusians among us to get creative and start pushing for new approaches to family policy in every domain of life and at every level of government. A whole-of-society effort to crush fertility got us in this population hole, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a whole-of-society effort to dig us out.

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Samuel Hammond

Samuel Hammond is the Director of Poverty and Welfare Policy at the Niskanen Center.