I got to know Jonathan Last because both of us (in separate years) won a Phillips Fellowship. This journalism fellowship — which is aimed at those on the conservative side of the political spectrum — supports research into a big topic that might become a book. The alums of the fellowship program get together 2-3 times per year.
At each get together, Jonathan would announce how his work was going on his project: a look at the declining birthrate in America (and most other countries) and what it meant for the future. Then we’d all enjoy a hearty joke about how those of us in the room were not part of the problem, as every alumni gathering bought news of a new baby — many times, second, third, and even fourth (and in one case, like seventh, but I’ve lost track) babies.
Last’s book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, is finally out, and was featured on the cover of the review section of the Wall Street Journal this weekend. His point is that much of our economy and society is not set up to deal with a declining population. That’s an issue, as the US birth rate has been under the replacement Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 2.1 children/woman pretty consistently for years. While demographers used to be worried about overpopulation, now the talk is about managed decline. How do you support retirees when there are fewer workers? How do you get rid of excess buildings so the whole country doesn’t turn into Detroit — or be taken over by wolves, like some towns in eastern Germany? What happens to the capital markets when the bulk of older people are looking for safe investments or to pull money out, rather than investing for growth? While the US has been buoyed by immigration in terms of TFR numbers, immigrant women tend to revert to the mean after a generation or so, and in any case, in much of Latin America (the major source of US immigration) fertility rates have declined drastically too.
Many governments are alarmed at the prospect of shrinking — as opposed to stable — populations, and so Last looks at various pro-natalist policies around the globe. Some of these have been semi-effective, and some have not. He concludes that “the government cannot get people to have children they do not want. However, it can help people have the children they do want.”
That last point is interesting for the American experience, as the US “desired fertility” rate (if you ask women how many kids they’d like to have) is around 2.5. Many women would like to have 2 or 3 kids, but wind up having 1 or 2 kids. So what could make families decide to go for that second or third child, thus keeping overall TFR around 2.1?
Last looks at a few ideas. He tries to avoid some of the sexism that rears its ugly head in many discussions on raising birthrates, and while one can read between the lines that he’s not completely dismissing the standard male-conservative-journalist discomfort with mothers in the workforce (don’t get me started on National Review’s treatment of this topic) he does note that “the liberation of women into the workplace [has] been enormously beneficial to us as a society” even if a side effect is delayed family formation, and hence smaller families. So if the answer isn’t to send women back home — or increase religious affiliation (one reason the Phillips group might be so fertile) — what is the answer?
One of the most intriguing ones is making college cheaper, and introducing some sort of credentialing system for specific skills. Long time readers of this blog know I am fascinated by the topic of merit badges in non Boy Scout contexts. College costs have zoomed upward in recent years. That makes parents view children as more expensive when they start looking at college costs. Plus, as people take longer to get the degrees necessary to enter the middle or professional class — which can happen if you have to take breaks for financial reasons, and if colleges offer fewer sections in one of the few attempts at economizing — they get married later. Even if they get married, college debt has them put off children longer until they’re financially stable. He suggests that the federal government get in the micro-credentialing business with exams showing you’ve mastered certain skills.
He discusses how the Social Security system at the margins discourages larger families. In the past, one of the major reasons for having kids is that they would care for you in your old age. Social Security benefits are paid for by current workers supporting retirees. So these days, the system “gives everyone welfare-state payouts in old age, regardless of whether they bore the cost of creating the taxpayers who fund the payouts.” He cites various proposals for changing this, including one to reduce FICA taxes by one-third for the first kid, two-thirds for the second, and completely by the third, until the kid turns 18. I tend not to like special tax breaks for anything, and I think such proposals miss how we all pay for everything. Childless people might complain that their property taxes paid for schools for all those years, even though they didn’t personally consume any of that education. Likewise, the government already gives child tax credits.
More interesting to me is the idea of promoting telecommuting. One of the biggest issues for families is what he calls the “dirt gap.” People with larger families tend to live in places where they can get more real estate cheaply. The problem is that these tend not to be job centers. When people elect to move to the ‘burbs, they buy themselves long commutes or reduced opportunities. Telecommuting changes that, so that people can potentially live near extended family (a boon for childcare purposes), have enough space so the kids can have a basement, and yet still plug into the economies of cities.
That last point is something I’ve been pondering as I’ve been reading a book called Walkable City, by Jeff Speck. This treatise on urban design is all about making cities denser, with higher property values, and lots of bike paths. This is great for hipsters and empty nesters, perhaps, but it’s really hard to bike three kids to daycare. Or even transport them around. See my attempt in the photo accompanying this post, taken on a vacation, when I am pushing two kids in a double stroller and have the third in an Ergo baby carrier strapped to my chest. Indeed, Speck lived for years in Washington DC without a car, but he noted that, when he had his second kid, they started looking at cars again. We left Manhattan in part because we didn’t want to spend the cash on a 3-bedroom apartment when we could have a 5-bedroom house for less out here in PA. As places try to appeal to the hip, one effect is to make it harder to have that third kid.
What do you think might affect birth rates?