Population

Population

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 13 1998 3:30 AM

Population

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Dear Ken,

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       OK, as you suggest in your first paragraph, let's agree to disagree.
       You say current fertility levels in the developed world are not unprecedentedly low. I say they are. I believe the vast majority of demographers, including those at the United Nations, agree with me, not you.
       You say attempts to extrapolate fertility trends into the future have always turned out flat wrong. I say that developed-world fertility has been trending downward--with some wiggles and bumps--for a couple of centuries (in the United States from eight children per woman to two). What was not fully sensed or explored was the notion that falling rates could go below the replacement level, way below it, and stay there for a long time (as in Europe, Japan, and lots of other places).You note that neither of us will be around in the year 2150. That sounds right; I'll check the data. But, God willing, we may be here for a few more decades. I think we will see what's happening much more clearly sooner than that.
       We also have at least two other major disagreements. You take note of my view that the West represents "the best hope that mankind will move forward," and state that such a view is--eek!--"ethnocentric." I plead guilty. I think the West, and particularly the American experience within that tradition-- with all the acknowledged flaws and backsliding--has brought into play the best aspects of organized humanity: democracy, freedom of religion and the press, an independent judiciary, free-market economics, human rights, to begin a long list. Alas, I can't prove this with any statistics. What to do? Here's an idea! Let's put it to a vote of the American people.
       And then there is your stunning comment, "it has never been easier for young people to have children." Ken, wake up and smell the coffee! Over the last two years, mostly in the course of producing a PBS special called The Grandchild Gap (tape and/or transcript available) I have interviewed young women and men from all over America, and from France, Italy, and Japan. One theme comes through loudly, clearly, and regularly: It has never been harder for young people to have children.
       Why hard? Well, they say, it costs so much; women have to work, so how can they have two children; they have college loans to pay off; it's so hard to meet a marriageable guy; it's so hard to meet a marriageable woman; it's so hard to get pregnant over 30; if you have children before you're 30 and stay home to raise them, your career suffers; we won't be able to send our children to the best colleges; adoption is costly, time-consuming, and often impossible. (Infertility has been called "the yuppie plague.") Add to this, in Europe, the plaint, "We can't get good jobs, how can we have babies?"
       So what should we do? We should examine, actually re-examine, "pro-natalism." As you know there is a great debate about the efficacy of the various pro-natal programs, which include children's allowances; day care; tax credits for children; education aid in a hundred different varieties. There are those who look to Europe and say, they've tried it and it hasn't worked. Others say, just imagine how bad it would be there if they didn't have some pro-natal programs in place. Still others say those pro-natal benefits have eroded starkly in recent decades, helping to cause the birth dearth.
       In the United States, we once had a mildly serious pro-natal policy. The value of the dependent deduction today is $2,250 per child. The 1946 value of the deduction, inflation-adjusted and relative to today's income, was about $8,000. There was a time, Ken, and I remember it, when a pregnant woman would get joshed, "I see you're having a little deduction."
       The $500 annual child tax credit passed in 1996 was a step in the right direction: It makes it easier for people who want to have children to have children, and without making the government a big player. (If you're a parent you get to keep more of your own money.) Of course, there are those who say $500 is too little to make it easier for anyone to have a baby. I win that argument. I say, OK, make it $5,000. Still not enough? How about $25,000, or a million dollars for that matter. Aha, they say, but we can't afford that. I say, can any civilization afford not to have children? And remember, according to Ron Lee, professor of demography and economics at Berkeley, an American child will ultimately bring to the economy $105,000 in "externalities" in the course of its lifetime. Suppose that money, or half of it, or even a quarter of it, were paid upfront to parents. That kind of pro-natalism might start working. (I worked for LBJ: A trillion here, a trillion there.)
       There are many simple ideas that could be tried. For example, how about a five-year moratorium on college-loan repayment when a couple has a baby? College loans are a good idea, but we never thought they'd end up as anti-natal policy. That's what's happened, though.
       Of course, it's not just money. That may not even be the biggest part of it. There is a deep spiritual dimension to this situation, but that's best dealt with retail not wholesale. Policy wonks do wholesale. Parents and poets do retail.
       I agree with you about immigration.
       Ken, I await your final missive. Surely, by now, you have changed your mind. Please say hello when you get to D.C.

Best,
Ben