The XX Factor

It’s Not Sexist To Point Out the Dangers of Declining Birthrates

Amanda, I’m sure its tempting to look at David Brooks’ column in the New York Times about declining birthrates and see it as just another front in the alleged “war on women.” But lobbing a charge of sexism at Brooks serves only to distract from the very legitimate problem he’s writing about.

You are correct, of course, that the world’s population is growing. But it’s not gowing merely because people are having children. It’s growing because humans are living longer. And there’s the heart of the problem—which I think Brooks failed to spell out clearly enough: Old people are expensive. In the United States, they get Social Security; they get Medicare. In 1955, there were 8.6 workers paying into the system for every retiree; as of 2010, it’s 2.9 workers paying in for every person receiving benefits.

Europe has seen even starker decreases in birth rate, putting is famous welfare states in jeopardy.  If birthrates become too low, there’s no one to pay into those generous pensions. Governments in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere have responded by offering subsidies to families for having more children. Some countries have maintained their population in spite of declining birth rates only through increased immigration, which can leave ghettoized minorities working low-paying jobs. (It’s a dirty little secret that Social Security in this country maintains its tenuous grip on solvency thanks in part to the fact that illegal immigrants have to pay into Social Security but cannot collect benefits.)

As a society, we have a choice. We can reduce our expectation of what the entitlement state should provide us in our old age. Or not. But if we don’t reduce our demands, if we want enough money to live on AND free health care AND prescription drugs, we have to look at how we’re going to achieve that without bankrupting ourselves. We can maintain birthrates sufficient to ensure a steady flow of workers paying into the systems that fund the elderly, or we can build our comfortable late-life existences on the backs of poor, hard-working immigrants who are rarely integrated into their new culture. Sure, we could means-test or ask the rich to pay more, but there aren’t enough rich people to keep us afloat.

By all means, people who do not want kids shouldn’t have them. However rewarding they are, they are an immense amount of work and endlessly time-consuming, even when they learn to put on their own shoes. But those who don’t have kids need to acknowledge that it’s not the “government” that is taking care of them in old age. It’s someone else’s children or grandchildren. It’s the migrant laborer who works backbreaking hours in the hot sun in a job that he was able to get only with a forged Social Security number.