Opinion | If We Want More Babies, Our ‘Profoundly Anti-Family’ System Needs an Overhaul

For the third and final installment in my newsletter series on the declining fertility rates in developed nations, I wanted to highlight reader responses to a question I asked a couple of weeks ago: What potential policy change or benefit would encourage you to have a child or, if you’re already a parent, more children?

I’ll reiterate that I don’t think people should feel pressured to have children they don’t want, and I’ll note that when societies try to control fertility in either direction, there’s a risk that their policies will become coercive. Writing for the Guttmacher Institute in 2012, Sneha Barot summarized some of these disturbing policies, such as the frightening pronatalist policies of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu — which outlawed contraception and abortion, with few exceptions, and included government-enforced gynecological exams — and the forced sterilizations that occurred in Peru and India during the second half of the 20th century. (Let’s not forget our country’s appalling history of forced sterilization.)

Also, I’m aware of the climate challenges implicated by the world’s population growth, and like Vegard Skirbekk, the population economist I interviewed in February, I think we need to reframe how we look at lower fertility rates across the globe and see them as a net positive and restructure our economies in a way that doesn’t require endless growth.

But I also believe that having wanted children is a pivotal part of human flourishing and that to build a healthy, modern society where we can care for its existing members, we need to support growing families. So I listed several family-friendly policy options for readers — more generous family leave, more affordable child care, student loan forgiveness, child tax credit, a mortgage rebate and earlier retirement — as well as some other option they could fill in, and asked if establishing any of these benefits would inspire them to start families or have more kids.

The most common choice among the replies was “other,” and we’ll get to that in a second. Among the ideas offered, the most popular was more affordable child care, and what surprised me about the responses was that they weren’t just from Americans. I have endlessly covered the outrageous expense of and lack of government support for child care in the United States, but parents from Canada, Germany, Britain and the United Arab Emirates all reported that child care costs were prohibitive for them, too.

For example, a 38-year-old from London who is the parent of a 3-year-old and an infant wrote in to say: “I’m in the U.K., and our child care is extremely expensive. Our household earns a good wage — we’re on about $150,000 a year — and yet I cannot really afford to send two children to day care. To do so, I am eating into my savings and counting down the days until my older child goes to school.” She described the lack of affordable child care as “one of the greatest failures of policymaking in modern history.”

Paid leave was the second-most-popular option, and I heard from a parent who said that the federal government’s decision to offer federal employees 12 weeks of paid leave had influenced her and her husband to have a third child. “My husband is a federal employee, and so while I just went back to work, he is able to stay home with our 4-month-old, and it is pretty amazing,” she wrote.

Readers who answered “other” suggested a long and varied list of additional policy ideas, including funding for assisted reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization, synchronizing the school day with the work day, making health care truly universal, guaranteeing paid sick leave and providing universal basic income.

But what many parents mentioned in their written responses wasn’t a single policy fix. It was a desire for change in the overall ethos and structure of parenting — the way we conceive it and the way our government approaches it — and people from all walks of life explained the ways in which they felt unsupported.

A dad in Seattle who is a teacher and has one child described our entire economic system as “profoundly anti-family.” A mom of four in South Carolina said the modern expectations of parenting make her life harder: “For example: keeping your eye on every kid at all moments (or else you’re an irresponsible parent and child protection services may be called on you), signing up for sports where the schedule is different for every single age.”

The feeling that so much would need to change to make individuals decide to expand their families was best described by a mom of two in Waco, Texas. She wrote:

It was really hard to pick just one response. All of those things would help immensely. I chose “more generous family leave” because the extremely limited family leave we have now represents the root of all that is wrong with our country’s view of child rearing. It would have to start there, I think. My husband works for the railroad (don’t even get me started on the recent almost strike and the unicorn that is called sick days), and he is the only one of my friends’ husbands whose employer hasn’t recently made some attempt at extending leave to fathers when a baby is born. Not knowing if I would have the basic support I need from my husband after childbirth, especially were I to have another C-section, gives me trepidation about having another child, despite wanting one. Not being able to create generational wealth by investing in our kids’ education because we are too saddled with our own student debt is another biggie. Ugh … the list goes on!

What I appreciated about this response is that it highlights something that is often missed in discussions of the global fertility rate, which too often place blame on child-free people for being selfish: It’s not just about the babies. It’s about the health and projected future finances of the entire family unit.

If developed nations are afraid their fertility rates are going to drop to unsustainably low levels — like in South Korea, where the fertility rate was 0.81 in 2021 — the fixes are going to have to be more comprehensive, because many young people don’t see a rosy economic or emotional future for themselves. As Lee Samsik, a professor at Hanyang University in Seoul, told my colleague John Yoon last year, “How difficult must people find it to get married, give birth and raise children for this number to be so low?” He added: “If we take this as a compressed measure of basic life, it’s a troublesome figure.”

Want More?

While it wasn’t the focus of this short series, the countries where population growth is robust have a different set of profound issues, and they need a different set of solutions. In The Guardian in 2018, Nicola Davis wrote about how Botswana’s program of family planning and education allowed Botswanan women to go from having an average of seven children about 50 years ago to fewer than three, with the infant mortality rate dropping from “97.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1971 to 17 in 2011.”

In Opinion this week, Patrick Brown analyzed his polling of American parents and highlighted five policy areas that may attract the most support across the political spectrum: “improving the child tax credit, protecting kids online, supporting new parents, promoting strong families and involved fatherhood and striving to eliminate marriage penalties in our tax code and benefit programs.”

The Wall Street Journal highlighted Nagi, Japan, a town of 5,700 people that has bucked the country’s low fertility trend. Nagi’s birthrate was 2.68 in 2021, compared with 1.3 for Japan as a whole. How did Nagi do it? According to The Journal: “Parents pay no more than $420 a month for day care for their first child, half that price for their second child and no charge for a third. Parents get the equivalent of $1,000 a year for each child in high school. Caregivers also get help from elderly women who look after children for a nominal sum.”

In The Times, German Lopez reported that President Biden proposed an “unusual,” if narrow, response to America’s affordable child care shortage: “The Department of Commerce announced that it would require computer chip manufacturers to make child care available to their workers when they apply for new federal funding.”

Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

I used to have a hard time getting my son to eat breakfast when he was in grade school, so I challenged him to eat the most outrageous thing for breakfast. Parents can do worse than feeding their kid sushi or spaghetti and meatballs in the morning.

— Maxine Tobias, Wilton, Conn.

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