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Jewish World Review
August 24, 2007
/ 10 Elul, 5767
Politics holds the key to ensuring a healthy growth in population
Jonathan V. Last
Regular readers will recall that we are on the verge of a population problem. Fertility rates have been falling across the globe, and in nearly every industrialized country are already below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Despite the appearance of a world bursting at the seams with an ever-greater number of people, the current growth rate is slowing and the world's population is likely to peak about nine billion and then begin contracting - precipitously - by 2080. Regular readers also will recall that there are convincing, if not certain, reasons to suspect that population contraction could be bad for civilization.
So what is to be done? We've never had a population contraction in modern times, but it has happened before. The Greek historian Polybius wrote about his own civilization's fertility decline. The same fate eventually befell the Roman Empire, where birthrates became so low that Caesar Augustus instituted a "bachelor tax" to punish men who did not marry and produce children.
Such measures would be untenable today, but while population contraction won't become a global reality for 70 more years, the decline in fertility is already worrying some governments. In Poland, which has a deathly fertility rate of 1.26, the prime minister recently proposed tax exemptions for mothers. In Russia (fertility rate: 1.39), the government offered a bonus of $9,200 for women who had a second child and has begun running youth camps where young men and women are encouraged to procreate right then and there. Portugal (fertility rate: 1.48) is trying to change its pension system so workers with fewer than two children will pay more into it through taxes.
Elsewhere, the support for natalism has been more rhetorical. Before being elected prime minister in Turkey (fertility rate: 1.89), Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that contraception was "treason to the state" and that Turks should "have babies, Allah wants it."
Yet experience shows that it is easier to depress fertility - as the governments of China and Mexico have - than it is to goose it. For instance, Soviet Russia tried desperately to get women to have children as it faced collapse in the 1980s, going so far as to award a "Motherhood Medal." It didn't help. Sweden has also been struggling with dangerously low fertility. Through a series of incentives, officials managed to move the country's rate up to replacement level for a moment in the 1980s, only to see it plummet again in the 1990s. It stands today at 1.66.
Fortunately for us, the United States is in a better position than these other countries - for now. Buoyed in part by immigration, our fertility rate sits just below replacement (2.09). And the good news is that we have gotten rich before we will get old. (One of the demographic quirks about population contraction is that as the fertility rate drops, the average age increases; to put matters crudely, old people are more costly than young people.)
But this benign situation is not likely to last. More likely is that at some point in the coming years, pro-natalism will become a significant feature of U.S. politics, too.
So what will pro-natalist politics look like? The single most important factor in predicting fertility is what demographers unromantically refer to as "desired fertility" - the number of children a couple would like to have. This figure, however, is more restrictive than predictive. If the desired fertility rate is 2.0, for instance, the actual fertility rate may wind up lower, but it almost certainly won't be higher.
For instance, studies show that among Europeans, actual fertility lags noticeably behind desired fertility. German and Italian women born in 1960, for instance, had desired fertility rates of 2.0 and 2.1 respectively, but a real rate of only 1.65. Across the continent, if women had reproduced at the levels they wished for, Europe would not be facing a baby bust. There has been a similar gap between desired and actual fertility in the United States. U.S. women born in 1960, for instance, desired 2.3 children but produced only 1.9.
Desired fertility is particularly difficult to manipulate, as the failure of the Motherhood Medal demonstrates. But fortunately, in the United States that aspect isn't a big part of the problem: Desired fertility numbers are actually rising, with 42 percent of Gen-Xers - compared with only 29 percent of baby boomers - saying three or more children is the ideal size for a family.
A pro-natalist politics, then, seeks not to persuade people to have children, but rather tries to make having children more economically feasible. And it can start, as most everything in government does, with taxes.
In 1950, the Social Security tax rate was 1.5 percent for employees, with all wages above $3,000 tax-free. This meant a worker paid a maximum of $144 ($1,100 in today's dollars) in annual Social Security tax. By 2003, the maximum Social Security tax was $11,136 in constant dollars - a 1,000 percent increase. To put it more starkly, the median tax rate of a family with one earner in 1955 was 17.3 percent. By 1998, that median rate had jumped to 37.6 percent.
Since everyone is eligible for Social Security, these taxes are a transfer of wealth from those who create the next generation of human capital to those without children. Pro-natalist politicians will find ways to change this system, perhaps by cutting Social Security taxes for families with more than two children.
College is another problem. The unending spiral of college tuition both increases the costs for prospective parents and saddles with debt many young couples who might be contemplating starting a family. But just as important, the expanding timeline of college and the increasing necessity of graduate degrees continue to push back the age of entry to the workforce - and hence the financial ability to start a family. The problem is that nature has its own fertility boundaries. The entire college system needs to be changed to make it both more affordable and flexible to young couples who want to start families.
Pro-natalism shouldn't be antithetical to either Democrats or Republicans. Certainly, both parties would face some internal resistance - Republicans from big-business types who care only about sucking the most out of employees, Democrats from those who see traditional families as patriarchal structures that should be destabilized. But at this moment, either party could claim pro-natalism as its own.
Sooner or later, one of them will. The 2008 election may be about Iraq and George W. Bush and the housing market. But the future of U.S. politics is going to be which party helps people have babies. And that's up for grabs.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.
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