Drawing on the work of Phillip Longman, Jonathan Last offers a data-heavy though easily-readable look at demographic trends that have resulted in collapsing fertility rates around the world.
Last begins with a striking quote from Teddy Roosevelt in a speech to the National Congress of Mothers:
There are many good people who are denied the supreme blessing of children, and for these we have the respect and sympathy always due to those who, from no fault of their own, are denied any of the other great blessings of life. But the man or woman who deliberately foregoes these blessings, whether from viciousness, coldness, shallow-heartedness, self-indulgence, or mere failure to appreciate aright the difference between the all-important and the unimportant–why, such a creature merits contempt as hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs away in battle, or upon the man who refuses to work for the support of this dependent upon hi, and who though able-bodied is yet content to eat in idleness the bread which others provide.
Harsh words from the Rough Rider, but the point is to show that childbearing and rearing, rather than a choice or a preference, is a difficult necessity. No less so today, as the industrialized world slides towards sub-replacement fertility.
Why is this a problem? Isn’t it overpopulation and scarcity that we have to worry about. Despite the popularity of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, Last says no. It isn’t overpopulation, but underpopulation that currently threatens global prosperity.
The basic argument is that as fertility rates dip below replacement population rates (that is, a “total fertility rate” or TFR that is around 2.1), you get a top-heavy population, a population that has more old people than young people. This is a problem because support for old people (Social Security and Medicare in this country) does not come from a stockpile of cash that the older folks accumulated during a working career, but rather from current wage earners. The fewer wage earners, the less money there is to support an aging population. This is exacerbated by the rising cost of healthcare and longer lifespans. And in America and in the rest of the world, people simply aren’t having enough babies to make up the slack.
The consequences of these changes are enormous. Entitlement programs will continue to consume ever larger chunks of the federal budget. As last notes, something has to give: “Either benefits will be scaled back, non-entitlement spending cut, or taxes raised.”
Another, more subtle consequence of declining fertility rates is the pace of human progress. Again, drawing on Phillip Longman, Last observes that between 1913 and 1972, “American’s ‘total-factor productivity’ (a measure of economic dynamics) increased annually by 1.08%. Between 1972 and 1995, that rate of increase declined by more than 80%” (27). Last blames a disproportionate number of elderly to the young, the ultimate effect of declining fertility rates.
Last knows his stuff and he gives some wonderful case studies of how declining fertility has impacted economies around the globe. Japan, Singapore, and Germany are particularly dire cases. Whole towns are closing up, despite best attempts of government officials to raise fertility rates by offering lucrative incentives (direct payments for children, tax incentives, national childcare, preferences to coveted primary schools).
Last is skeptical that any government effort can persuade people to have children, necessary as it is, if they don’t want them. And as actual fertility declines, so does desired fertility. That is, people want to have fewer and fewer children as there are fewer and fewer children they are exposed to. Himself the father of three, Last does the opposite of romanticizing parenthood. Parenthood is hard, and it makes you unhappy, at least in the short term. Rather than the government persuading people who don’t want to have children to have children, Last encourages government efforts to help those who do want to have children do it well. In America at least, there is hope since desired fertility is still quite high. His suggestions include:
1. Fixing the ways in which Social Security suppresses the fertility rate. He speaks favorably towards Longman’s proposal of a “parental dividend” system which would reduce a couple’s FICA taxes by one-third with the birth of their first child, by two thirds with the birth of a second, and then eliminated completely with the third (until the children turn 18). The goal: “(1) Let parents keep more of their money. (2) Increase the relief with additional children. (3) Reduce the fundamental distortion that Social Security now creates [which] gives everyone welfare-state payouts in old age, regardless of whether they bore the cost of creating the taxpayers who fund the payouts.”
2. De-incentivize college, especially for those careers in which it is not necessary. College is money-making institution and people are highly encouraged to attend, even when a degree is completely unnecessary for a given career. Last blames an obscure Supreme Court case, Griggs v. Duke Power, which held that employers could not rely on IQ-type tests for hiring. Since colleges can rely on such tests, employers can ask for a degree as a credential badge–“a marker that gives employers a vague estimate of a person’s intelligence, social milieu, and work ability” (164). The problem is that rising education levels suppress fertility (by delaying the age of marriage, and for women, pushing child-bearing back to when it is not as easy). For those uncomfortable with discouraging education (as a direct beneficiary to the pursuit of higher education, I am one of the uncomfortable ones), Last recommends a more reasonable suggestion of making college campuses more family friendly for those who don’t want to delay childbearing. He offers BYU as an example, and his suggestion dovetails nicely with the recommendations of pro-life feminists.
3. Close the dirt gap. High fertility is highly correlated with locale. Suburban America is doing fine in the baby-making department while urban America is floundering. Last suggests making it easier for families to live in areas with a lower cost of family formation. These suggestions include improving access to the suburbs by improving highways and increasing telecommuting options.
4. Fostering religiosity. Religious people have more babies, Last notes. Countries with a stronger trend toward secularization have a lower fertility rate. “It is important,” he writes, “that we preserve the role of religion in our public square, resisting those critics who see theocracy lurking behind every corner. Our government should be welcoming of, not hostile to, believers–if for no other reason than they’re the ones who create most of the future tax payers” (170).
The book is well-written and well-argued. Last is a conservative, but his argument is driven by data, not ideology. But why is it an important book for moral theology? For one, Last offers social scientific arguments that support certain moral arguments: arguments against abortion and in favor of marriage, arguments in favor of more family-friendly work environments, arguments in favor for religion in the public square. Although this is not his point, he shows that it is reasonable and prudent to support certain positions pertaining to social justice and family ethics based not necessarily on religious arguments alone, but religious arguments that are supported by evidence. His book is a tool for religious folks to engage moral questions in the public square and seek common ground on important and pressing matters to social development and progress.
But his book is also important because it challenges the assumption, prevalent though it is, that baby-making is predominantly a matter of preference or lifestyle choice, one that can be foregone in favor of the child-free life without moral judgment. Childbearing is not just a choice; it is a necessity. Society depends on current citizens producing future citizens, and the consequences of a consciously-chosen child-free life are not minimal. In our own country, where more and more couples are choosing to remain childless, this is an argument that needs to be heard.
Jonathan Last, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter Books, 2013).
(This is the part of a periodic series—You Should Read This—on works worth reading. Search “You Should Read This” for other entries.)