In a Ted Talk given in May of 2019, journalist Wajahat Ali offered a crowd of Silicon Valley types what he referred to as “The case for having kids.”
“My friends who don’t want kids all point to climate change as a reason for never having babies,” he opens. They say roughly the things you’d expect: “There’s orphan kids who still need parents,” “There’s a lack of resources to go around for everyone,” and “We have a ginormous carbon footprint that is destroying this planet.” Those are all valid points, he concedes.
And yet, Ali says, “Babies have always represented humanity’s best, boldest, most beautiful and infinite possibilities. And so, for those who can and who choose to have kids, may you pass on this beautiful thing called life, with kindness, generosity, decency and love.”
His talk is especially moving when you consider that it was delivered moments after he discovered that his young daughter, Nusayba, had been diagnosed with stage four liver cancer.
After decades of declining birth rates as couples wait longer to have kids (and have fewer when they get around to it), Ali taps into an increasingly visible shift toward what some refer to as “pro-natalist” thought – that is, the belief that it is inherently good to have children.
And the shift is noteworthy.
From films like Knocked Up and Juno to stand up acts like Mike Birbiglia’s The New One, the cracks in the asphalt of our Career-Now-Kids-Later-If-Ever culture are beginning to show.
Birbiglia’s story is especially near to my heart. It recounts how the comedian, who does not want kids, married a woman who does. After several idyllic (and childless) years, they brokered a deal: His wife, Jen, would have his baby – with the understanding that all child-rearing responsibilities would be on her.
So they do it. Jen becomes pregnant, and Mike remains aloof. The child is born, Oona, and Mike is uninvolved. He’ll go on a comedy tour and return to a messy house and a perpetually exhausted wife. The pattern wears on both of them.
But over time, things change. Whether because of some previously untapped paternal instinct or because of hormones running amok in his body, Mike finds that he can’t remain aloof from the child that his wife is raising. He begins to invest in Oona: Making up songs, washing her dishes, changing her diaper, rocking her to sleep. Over time and against his intent, he becomes a father. And he discovers that he wouldn’t want it any other way.
The experiences of Birbiglia and Ali, though different, remind us of the obvious but oft-forgotten: It is good to have children.
It is also absolutely, non-negotiably important to have children.
“There is a chasm between the birth rates we have and the birth rates we allegedly want. As Lyman Stone notes in a 2018 New York Times piece, American birth rates are “far short of what women themselves say they want for their family size.”
Because, as Ali points out above in The Case For Having Kids, America’s birth rates are dangerously low.
Ali notes that in order to maintain a steady population, a community needs to maintain a birth rate of at least 2.1 newborns per woman. That doesn’t mean that literally every single woman needs to have 2.1 children (how would that even work?), but it does mean that the average child-to-woman ratio needs to remain at or above 2.1:1. The social-scientific term for this is the “replacement rate.”
Historically, birth rates have varied but have consistently exceeded the replacement threshold, but rates have been falling steadily since about 1960, and since the Great Recession in the late 2000s especially have plummeted to around 1.7. That is to say, our population is shrinking, and rather quickly at that.
What’s especially fascinating about this particular trend is that it isn’t inevitable. There is a chasm between the birth rates we have and the birth rates we allegedly want. As Lyman Stone notes in a 2018 New York Times piece, American birth rates are “far short of what women themselves say they want for their family size.”
So we are having fewer children than we’d like to. Why?
As in all things, there are probably multiple right answers to that question. But one factor keeps coming up: Having children has become profoundly, prohibitively expensive.
“Thanks to student debt, a dearth of parental benefits and the instability induced by our labor market,” notes columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, “settling down and having kids are far riskier propositions than they have to be.”
That applies even to people who aren’t living paycheck-to-paycheck. Nine minutes into his Ted Talk, Ali starts riffing on the sheer cost of childbirth alone:
“The United States of America is the most expensive country in the world to give birth. If you do not have insurance, it will cost you 32,000 dollars to have a baby, if everything goes perfectly. That’s like buying a brand new Honda Odyssey minivan, OK? So, congratulations, you just had a baby, but the baby’s economic productivity is zero, and guess what? The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not require employers to offer paid parental leave. “Mom, you just had a baby, congratulations, that’s lovely. Get back to work or you’re fired, young mom!” My wife and I, both working parents, pay about 3,500 dollars a month — a month — in Virginia for childcare. If you do the math, that’s 40,000 dollars a year. That’s like buying a brand new, souped-up, Honda Odyssey minivan, OK. I have one, I do not need 10.”
And behind the cute anecdotes about minivans lie rather horrific realities. Matt Bruenig – Elizabeth’s husband – notes that “Even US children in two-parent families have much higher poverty rates than children in other developed countries.” Other relevant statistics are equally grim.
And the result, for the last few decades, has been that U.S. birth rates have plummeted to unsustainable levels. We can’t afford to bring new generations into existence, so we aren’t.
“A dwindling pool of laborers and taxpayers means that our ability to pay for infrastructure, safety nets, and social programs is shrinking, too – and quicker than we think. Miniscule birth rates lead to dismantled welfare states because we simply won’t have the population to fund them.”
We are not the only country struggling with a shrinking birth rate, and we aren’t the first. If these trends continue, Japan provides a glimpse of the future that awaits us. Over at National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty chronicles a pretty horrifying phenomenon:
“Japan’s population peaked at around 128 million people in 2010. Since then it has been shrinking. The overall population declined in 2018 by 430,000, the equivalent of a midsize city. In raw numbers, Japan’s depopulation is proceeding at a pace that would keep up with or exceed the number of deaths inflicted during the height of Curtis LeMay’s terrifying fire-bombing campaign in the crescendo of World War II. LeMay’s campaign ended after a year. But Japan will continue to lose its midsize-city equivalents year after year, and there is no end in sight. Japan’s fertility rate continues to fall and is now approximately 1.4 per woman, having dropped below replacement level back in the late 1970s. The effect on the social structure of Japan is radical. A below-replacement-level fertility rate could be considered something like a critically low rate of investment in posterity and in one’s own golden years. By hoarding and consuming the society’s resources through middle age, a generation of Japan has entered its old age without the economic and social protection offered by adult children. Thus the political process has to extract more resources from a shrinking productive-age cohort to support the elderly.”
In other words, by coupling low birth rates with restrictive immigration practices, Japan has placed itself on a pathway toward nonexistence with experts like Meiji University Economics Professor Hisakazu Kato projecting that “Japan could lose one-third of its population by 2065,” a pattern that would only accelerate as young, fertile adults make up an ever-shrinking portion of the ever-shrinking population.
But even if we ignore the “soft doomsday” projections that come with our dangerously low birth rates, we have another problem: A dwindling pool of laborers and taxpayers means that our ability to pay for infrastructure, safety nets, and social programs is shrinking, too – and quicker than we think. Miniscule birth rates lead to dismantled welfare states because we simply won’t have the population to fund them.
“The social-democratic solutions pursued by Europe are worthwhile and we should imitate them, but they won’t solve the issue in themselves. America’s infertility problem runs deeper than simply our devastating lack of common good social programs.”
What all of this means is that, pretty much regardless of where your politics fall, you have a vested interest in having more children – and encouraging others to do the same. And given that underpopulation is a non-partisan problem, it’s worth pursuing worthy suggestions from all across the political aisle.
For example, Reason Magazine’s Steven Horowitz suggests “Eliminat[ing] a range of zoning laws and other regulations and fees that prevent people from opening home-based businesses, making it easier to care for children while earning a living.”
In Russia, the Putin administrations offered tax breaks for families and a “one-off ‘maternity capital’ payment” of roughly $7,600 USD for “families with two or more children,” according to the BBC. Likewise, France offers “subsidised child care for younger children and a generous benefits system” aimed directly at “larger families.” Sweden offers parents a “monthly allowance” of about $167 per child along with 480 days of paid leave transferrable between parents as needed upon birth.
Most recently in the U.S., Republican Senator Mitt Romney proposed a similar Child Allowance of “$350 a month for each young child and $250 a month for each school-aged child,” followed by competing proposals from Oren Cass at American Compass and Matt Bruenig at the People’s Policy Project.
As Ali notes in his Ted Talk, most of the European countries who introduced government-funded programs like these saw their birth rates increase, at least slightly.
But not nearly enough.
Even Sweden and France, which boast some of the highest fertility rates in the developed world, fall short of the 2.1 replacement rate. While the U.S. is sprinting toward nonexistence, Europe is on a leisurely walk in the same direction.
Thus, Ross Douthat notes in a piece for Plough Magazine that:
“At the margins, policy can encourage births, but usually that means going from 1.4 kids per woman to 1.55, or 1.7 to 1.8 – gains that are fragile and easily swamped, both by specific events (like the Great Recession or the coronavirus) and by larger trends like the continued retreat from marriage and intimacy.”
The social-democratic solutions pursued by Europe are worthwhile and we should imitate them, but they won’t solve the issue in themselves. America’s infertility problem runs deeper than simply our devastating lack of common good social programs. It’s more than just economic insecurity.
“We will need to begin to value the difficulties of child-rearing over the conveniences empty-nesting. Americans, on a grand scale, will have to forsake the draw of disposable income and open-ended free time in favor of the emotional and financial drain that comes with raising tiny humans. And we’ll need to make the transition soon.”
Or maybe it’s less.
It’s entirely possible – if a little too simple – that the deepest roots of our brewing fertility crisis are more cultural than economic. The reasons are so obvious that they’re nearly impossible not to miss.
Case-in-point: During a recent NPR interview, Ali discussed the cultural impact of his original Ted Talk, and fielded questions about the implications of his newfound pro-natalist appeal. One of the questions went something like, “How do you square the notion that we should be having more children with the fact that many people aren’t so sure they want to add kids to their lives?
And, without missing a beat, Ali replied, “That’s a great question, and a great point. Having kids is a deeply personal decision.” He went on to not really answer the question.
Because he can’t really answer the question – not without implying, at least indirectly, that the urgency of preventing our birth rates from cratering will require many of us to curtail our own autonomy. To put it bluntly: It’s unlikely that we can deal effectively with the fertility crisis unless a large number of Americans prioritize having children.
Specifically, an awful lot of people will need to prioritize having children over other things. We will need to begin to value the difficulties of child-rearing over the conveniences empty-nesting. Americans, on a grand scale, will have to forsake the draw of disposable income and open-ended free time in favor of the emotional and financial drain that comes with raising tiny humans. And we’ll need to make the transition soon.
That’s a tall order, not least because it inevitably means a tectonic shift away from what we could call our “autonomy culture” and over to a “vocation culture.” Essentially, the only realistic pathway towards reinvigorating our birth rates is to move away, as a culture, from seeing kids as a “deeply personal choice,” or a pathway to personal fulfillment, or even simply as a “milestone” in the process of growing into adulthood. Instead, we need to see it as a calling.
Children as a calling. Parenting as a vocation. Contributing to the next generation as a basic human duty.
Under such a seismic cultural shift, certain commonplace sentiments would begin to sound downright alien. We would begin to hear “I don’t want kids” in roughly the same tenor as “I’m not paying my taxes this year,” or “my aging, widowed mother-in-law is not my problem.”
There’s no policy fix for what currently ails us – although, again, following Europe’s lead in making the country truly child friendly is a worthy goal. The only way out of our self-imposed population crisis is to discover, again, together, that “Babies have always represented humanity’s best, boldest, most beautiful and infinite possibilities,” as Ali so eloquently puts it. And then to “pass on this beautiful thing called life, with kindness, generosity, decency and love.”
By Ryan Ellington
James G Hanink
Thanks, Ryan, for an excellent piece. I’ve just posted it on my FB page.