The Rebirth of America’s Pro-Natalist Movement

Activists on the right and left want policies that will reverse the country’s baby bust. But the broader culture—and Congress—don’t seem to care.

Across the developed world, birth rates are below replacement level, meaning women don’t have enough children to replenish the population. Pro-natalists argue that this will have devastating consequences. By contrast, they say, having kids has lots of upsides. “People want it. Society needs it. We want the economy to grow,” said Stone said in an interview.

 

America needs more babies.

That’s what policymakers seem to have decided, from the White House to Capitol Hill. Congress spent November considering the Child Tax Credit, a measure that reduces the federal income taxes owed by families with kids. The Senate and the House both voted to raise the credit in their recent tax bills, which will soon be reconciled. Meanwhile, two Democratic senators, Michael Bennet and Sherrod Brown, proposed their own version of an increase. And led by Ivanka Trump, the Trump administration has been softly pushing a child-care tax deduction and federal paid-maternity-leave program.

These programs have been sold as ways to support struggling middle-class families, but they also address another issue: declining birth rates. Government data suggests the U.S. has experienced drops in fertility across multiple measures in recent years. Even Hispanic Americans, who have had high fertility rates compared to other ethnic groups in recent decades, are starting to have fewer babies. Lyman Stone, an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who blogs about fertility in his spare time, called this year’s downward fertility trend “the great baby bust of 2017.”

These are the seeds of a nascent pro-natalist movement, a revived push to organize American public policy around childbearing. While putatively pro-family or pro-child policymaking has a long history in the U.S., the latest push has a new face. It’s more Gen X than Baby Boom. It’s pro-working mom. And it upends typical left-right political valences: Measures like the Child Tax Credit find surprising bipartisan support in Congress. Over the last year or so, the window of possibility for pro-natalist policies has widened.

Even so, proponents of child-friendly policies, left and right, are deeply skeptical that the government will prove willing to put family at the center of its laws—or that the government can change current birth-rate trends. Ultimately, a shared cultural commitment to the importance of children is the factor that will determine America’s baby-making future.

Across the developed world, birth rates are below replacement level, meaning women don’t have enough children to replenish the population. Pro-natalists argue that this will have devastating consequences. By contrast, they say, having kids has lots of upsides. “People want it. Society needs it. We want the economy to grow,” said Stone said in an interview.

At least in Europe and the U.S., birth rates tend to lag behind what women desire. According to data reported by the Pew Research Center in 2014, 40 percent of American women approaching the end of their childbearing years say they have fewer kids than they had wanted.

The argument that having more kids is good for society is a little bit trickier. Some environmentalists argue that population control is key to protecting the earth’s resources. Others say a childless lifestyle might be preferable to the life of a parent. Some philosophers even argue that it’s immoral to have kids at all.

Pro-natalists say societal well-being—and democracy itself—depend on Americans’ willingness to procreate. “It’s not that common that love is a policy argument,” Stone said. But “the most important part of human well-being is family.” And “that’s not a subjective statement,” he added. “That’s an objective one” supported by public-health literature.

Jonathan Last, The Weekly Standard’s digital editor and author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, takes a more somber view: If people in authoritarian societies have more children than citizens of liberal democracies, “over the long haul, those people inherit the earth,” he said. The economics of a shrinking global population could lead to chaos and desperate political acts, he predicted: “In the course of the next 50 or 100 years, you could wind up in a world that is unstable and unpleasant and illiberal.”

The economic case for more babies is fairly straightforward: More workers presumably yield more productivity. As Stone said, “There is no economy that has managed to knock out gangbuster growth with a declining population.” And a wild imbalance between populations of the non-working elderly and strapping young people can wreak havoc: “As governments raise taxes on a dwindling working-age population to cover the growing burdens of supporting the elderly,” wrote the journalist Phillip Longman in a 2006 essay for Foreign Policy, “young couples may conclude they are even less able to afford children than their parents were.”

Stone tossed in a final reason for society to support baby-making: “The history of humanity is long, and it rarely goes a century without a major war. You need warm bodies to fill the uniforms,” he said. This isn’t the most common justification for pro-natalism, he admitted—it’s “the one that gets me teased the most.”

Read More