Editor's Note, March 2024

Written by Marian Starkey | Published: March 11, 2024

Imagine not wanting children but being effectively persuaded to have them because your government is offering a one-time cash payment of a few hundred dollars … when it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise kids to adulthood in the advanced economies where fertility is very low and where governments are incentivizing childbirth … and when women are already burdened with an outsized share of housework and, in some countries, are expected to give up their careers when they become mothers. I don’t know about you, but a couple hundred bucks wouldn’t be enough to sway me. It hasn’t been enough to change the childbearing trends of most women in Europe or East Asia either, where pronatalist proposals have been met with indifference at best.

An oft-cited Gallup poll asks American adults, “What do you think is the ideal number of children for a family to have?” This should not be confused with the completely different question, “How many children would you personally like to have?” Nevertheless, journalists often do assign this erroneous meaning to the poll question, reporting that most Americans “want” two (44%) or three (29%) children. Because the current total fertility rate is only 1.65 births per woman, this would indicate that Americans are having fewer children than they wish to have and that public policy could inform people’s childbearing decisions. Never mind that people could think it’s theoretically ideal for kids to have a sibling or two while having no desire to have two or three kids themselves.

In fact, data from around the world have shown that pronatalist policies such as cash bonuses, employment and housing perks, and free pets (an actual proposal from a presidential candidate in Taiwan) have very little effect on childbearing trends. There is some evidence from European countries that making life a little bit less difficult for people who want to have children can raise fertility rates a tad, but these policies — e.g. parental leave, affordable health care, guaranteed childcare — should be implemented regardless of their influence on fertility rates.

In this issue’s feature article, Anna North runs through many countries’ attempts to yield higher birth rates among their citizens, and the reasons they never “succeed” in changing birthing trends in any significant way.

Parenting shouldn’t be punishing, at least not in ways wealthy economies can prevent, but it also shouldn’t be coerced. It’s a step on the road to dystopia whenever governments nose their way into people’s private lives, whether it’s to lower birth rates or to raise them. The most optimal outcomes for individuals, families, communities, and countries occur when people have as many life options as possible and the education, tools, and services to make the decisions they deem best for themselves. And we know that personal freedom over childbearing results in smaller families, on average, fostering a healthier and less crowded planet for future generations.

Contact Marian: marian@popconnect.org