Unless you are a single woman, of course. Oh and also if you don’t have babies, you’re being “decadent” and you don’t care about the future or the very fabric of society:
But deeper forces than the financial crisis may keep American fertility rates depressed. Foreign-born birthrates will probably gradually recover from their current nadir, but with fertility in decline across Mexico and Latin America, it isn’t clear that the United States can continue to rely heavily on immigrant birthrates to help drive population growth.
Among the native-born working class, meanwhile, there was a retreat from child rearing even before the Great Recession hit. For Americans without college degrees, economic instability and a shortage of marriageable men seem to be furthering two trends in tandem: more women are having children out of wedlock, and fewer are raising families at all.
Finally, there’s been a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans told Pew that children were “very important” to a successful marriage; in 2007, just before the current baby bust, only 41 percent agreed. (That trend goes a long way toward explaining why gay marriage, which formally severs wedlock from sex differences and procreation, has gone from a nonstarter to a no-brainer for so many people.)
Government’s power over fertility rates is limited, but not nonexistent. America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound. Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference.
More broadly, a more secure economic foundation beneath working-class Americans would presumably help promote childbearing as well. Stable families are crucial to prosperity and mobility, but the reverse is also true, and policies that made it easier to climb the economic ladder would make it easier to raise a family as well.
Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
Here’s an idea: Construct a society where child-rearing isn’t a massive sacrifice. Construct a society where people without children aren’t stigmatized as indulgent or selfish. Construct a society where having a kid is just one decision among many — but one that is supported, and doesn’t (at least for women) tie to career stagnation and financial insecurity.
The truth is that when women can control their fertility, they do. Some women want to have a lot of kids, and that’s great and should be supported. But most women want one or two, and that should be supported as well. Some want zero. Right now, the incentives to have children are largely social and biological — “family” still largely hinges on having kids, and most people in America grow up with the basic assumption that you’ll grow up and have a baby or two (I certainly did). There are very few economic incentives beyond the long game (Social Security, pension pay-ins, etc) and, at least for women, almost no individual economic incentives.
Nonetheless, the vast majority of Americans do have children at some point in their lives. But as women increasingly have social, economic and political power, we are faced with wider options for a happy fulfilled life outside of the traditional model. In the conservative mind, having kids is apparently a fun-sucking awful sacrifice — and in many cases, that’s actually true. Having kids can be financially imperiling. It can destabilize relationships and marriages. For women, it means getting paid less and often watching your career stagnate. It means all kinds of potential health complications. Accordingly, women with the widest range of options — highly-educated women in well-paying careers — are the likeliest group to have children later in life or not at all.
Making childbearing a more appealing option for all women requires that we situate it as one good choice among many, instead of an individual sacrifice that must be slogged through in the service of the next generation. Through that lens, it’s simply good public policy to support reproductive health and women and men with kids, while also supporting women and men who want to remain un-parents — it helps to keep the economy humming, it lowers health care costs, and, yes, it helps us to build up that social safety net. Offering a tax break to stay-at-home moms — which is the Douthat solution, by the way — and then imploring people to sacrifice their own “decadent” single lives by having kids is not exactly a winning argument.