Despite right-wing panic about the plummeting birthrate, Republicans are lining up against Biden's pro-family 'human infrastructure' push

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© Jewel Samad/Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greet babies on the campaign trail in 2012. Jewel Samad/Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

  • Many on the right, particularly social and religious conservatives, are concerned about the US’s declining birthrate.
  • Meanwhile, progressives are hoping to pass a transformational expansion of the social safety net that would make it easier for many Americans to have kids.
  • But Republicans appear dead set against Democratic proposals for paid family leave and universal childcare.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Welcome to the pandemic baby bust.

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As many Americans found themselves trapped at home over the last year, some speculated the US would see a “baby boom.” Instead, the public health emergency and economic crisis led to a collapse in the number of births. Experts predict there will be about 300,000 fewer babies born in the US in 2021 than there were last year.

But the sudden decline builds on a longer-term trend. US birthrate numbers plummeted following the 2008 financial crisis and has continued to fall over the last dozen years, even as the economy recovered. In 2019, they reached their lowest level in 35 years.

Some conservatives are panicking about the declining birthrate and the impact it could have on conservative values and the economy. Progressives are largely less concerned with the number of births, and more focused on pulling kids and their parents out of poverty and making it easier for families to raise the kids they have.

After passing a temporary, but substantial, expansion of the child tax credit designed to halve child poverty, President Joe Biden is getting ready to unveil another far-reaching set of proposals that would significantly expand the social safety net for families. Among those policies are universal pre-K and paid family leave, both of which are proven to boost women’s employment and the birthrate.

But while these policies would make it easier for Americans to have kids, Republican lawmakers are dead set against the American Families Plan.

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‘Bad times mean falling birthrates’

To some extent, the birthrate decline reflects advances in gender equity. As women access more educational and employment opportunities, they often postpone marriage and have fewer children. Increased access to long-acting reversible contraception is also helping people, including teenagers, avoid unintended pregnancy.

But economic hardship and uncertainty are perhaps the most important factors. When unemployment rises or incomes fall, people have fewer kids. Millennials are particularly hard-hit by sky-rocketing healthcare and housing costs, and the debt crisis. Their generation controls less than 5% of the nation’s wealth, while baby boomers held 21% of the country’s wealth at the same age.

As a result, many younger Americans say they can’t afford to have as many kids as they’d like to. This has helped create a gap between the number of children Americans say they want, and the number they actually have, known as unmet fertility.

More than 60% of Americans between 20 and 40 who are having fewer kids than they’d like to cite the high cost of childcare, according to a 2018 New York Times survey. About half said they were worried about the economy and 44% said they just couldn’t afford to have any kids, or more kids than they already have.

“Throughout history, bad times mean falling birthrates,” Philip Cohen, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland, told Insider. He added that as a result of COVID-19, “a lot of people suffered a lot, a lot of people had dramatic changes in their lives, and we see it now in the data — they’re just not having as many children.”

The US isn’t alone: Most advanced economies are experiencing a similar long-term birthrate decline made more severe by the pandemic. Almost a third of American women and gender non-conforming people say they’re delaying having kids or won’t have a kid because of the pandemic, according to a Modern Fertility survey.

Lower-income families and communities of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and deaths, unemployment, and other economic hardship. At the same time, higher-income Americans who’ve kept their jobs and worked remotely through the pandemic have seen their savings balloon. Experts believe the growing popularity of white collar remote work might encourage higher-income families to have more children in the long-term.

“It would not surprise me at all, a year from now when we get better data, if the birth effect was bigger on lower socio-economic status women,” Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College and a co-author of a Brookings Institution study predicting a 2021 birthrate decline, told Insider.

When it comes to boosting birthrates, experts say it will require policies that promote long-term economic stability and major investments in social policy, rather than just short-term infusions of cash.

“Things like healthcare and education and housing … that would make the future more secure, especially for people at the lower end, those are the pressing issues both whether you’re trying to increase the birthrate or whether you’re just trying to make life better,” said Cohen, the UMD sociologist.

© Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Tucker Carlson Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Why some are concerned about the birthrate

Who cares if Americans are having fewer babies?

Many economists predict that a growing elderly population will strain Social Security and otherwise overburden a shrinking labor-force. Some, including a large number of social conservatives, believe a falling birthrate will exacerbate social isolation on the individual level, doom American economic and political power on a global scale, and undermine conservative family ideals. Others, including liberal journalist Matthew Yglesias, wants to see the US population grow to counteract China’s international influence.

More worryingly, political scientists warn that societies with declining birthrates are more likely to embrace right-wing populism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

Ethnocentrism and white supremacy have long fueled fears about demographic change. White nationalist political groups, from the Nazis to Hungary’s current ruling party, have pressured women to have larger families.

In the US, the far-right promotes the white supremacist “Great Replacement” theory, which holds that people of color will replace white people as the birthrate among white women declines.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, one of the most influential voices on the political right, argues that America needs more children but fewer immigrants. He endorses the “replacement theory,” bemoans the country’s changing racial demographics, demonizes poor immigrants, and urges young Americans to have large families and resurrect a patriarchal social structure.

Former Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican and white supremacist sympathizer, declared in 2017 that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

Welcoming more immigrants into the country is the fastest way to quickly grow the US labor force, and economists say higher levels of immigration are badly needed to maintain economic growth. New York City’s chief demographer recently said the “real threat” facing the city post-pandemic “is that we stop attracting immigrants.” But as thousands of migrant children are detained on the US-Mexico border, most Republicans support restrictionist immigration policies and mass deportation.

The US also has a long history of devaluing Black, brown, and poor mothers. Social safety programs with work requirements force poor single mothers into the workforce, even as conservatives urge higher-income women to stay home. Many conservatives, including Carlson, who express concern about the falling birthrate don’t support certain social welfare policies that would make it easier for lower-income families, who are disproportionately Black and brown, to have children.

“If it was just about the birthrate and it was just about American women having more children and there weren’t other layers there with respect to racism and poverty, we would see a very different approach in some of these other policy arenas,” Jamila Michener, a government professor at Cornell University and co-director of its Center for Health Equity, told Insider.

© REUTERS/Andrew Kelly Democratic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez poses with a child in costume as she attends the “Halloween with Alexandria” event at St Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx, New York, U.S., October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

The ‘moral dilemma’ of boosting birthrates

Progressives generally agree with conservatives that unmet fertility is problematic, but they are more concerned with the underlying social ills it reflects. They believe growing inequality, persistent child poverty, and climate change are more pressing problems than the birthrate decline.

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently argued that it’s a “luxury” for many Americans to feel financially stable enough to have kids.

“The actual crisis is how entire generations are sunk [with] inhumane levels of student debt, low incomes, high rent, no guarantee of healthcare & little action on climate change which creates a situation where feeling stable enough to have a kid can feel more like a luxury than a norm,” she tweeted in response to a story about the baby bust “crisis.”

There’s also growing concern, particularly among young people, about the climate impacts and related ethical implications of having kids. Research has shown that having one fewer child is the single most impactful behavioral action anyone can take to reduce their carbon footprint – and Americans emit among the most carbon per person of any country in the world. Prince Harry recently told Jane Goodall that he and his wife would have no more than two children, in part because of their concern for the planet’s future.

“Bringing more people into a context of dramatic inequality where there is no guarantee that they will be cared for or that they will have a viable environment to exist in – I think there is a real moral dilemma there,” Michener said.

The politics of pro-family policies

Both Republicans and Democrats insist they’re “pro-family,” but American public policy is notoriously unfriendly to most families and children. Unlike other major economies, the US doesn’t have subsidized child-care, paid parental leave, universal healthcare, or other key programs that help lift kids and families out of poverty and boost the middle class.

Except for a few years during WWII when women temporarily joined the workforce en masse, the US has never had universal child-care. In most US states, child-care now costs more than in-state college tuition. Daycare and preschool costs are sending some American families into debt.

No Republican lawmakers voted for Biden’s stimulus package, but some social conservatives have come around to the idea of sending cash to parents. In February, GOP Sen. Mitt Romney proposed his Family Security Act, which includes an even more generous child allowance than the one Biden signed into law. Supporters of the plan say it would encourage stay-at-home parenting and marriage, reduce the abortion rate by sending money to pregnant women, and boost the birthrate.

The Biden administration is looking to significantly expand the safety net for families in its next “Build Back Better” legislative push. The president has proposed another $25 billion investment in the country’s child-care centers – following a $25 billion bailout in the March stimulus – and a universal pre-K program. The American Families Plan, which the administration has said it will unveil later this month, will also include paid family and medical leave, expand the Affordable Care Act, and extend the child allowance passed in the stimulus. Research has found that government-funded child-care it’s one of the best ways to boost the birthrate through policy.

The Democratic push for these family-supporting policies comes after decades of progressive activism.

© SAUL LOEB/Getty Images SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, has been raising the alarm about the crushing costs of childrearing for two decades.

“Bringing up children has indeed become a crummy financial bargain,” Warren wrote in her 2003 book, “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke.” “Some women have found [the] solution: Don’t have children.”

She argued back then that women’s entrance into the labor-force hadn’t led to a corresponding financial boost for dual-income families, in part because of the rapidly increasing costs of child-care, education, and housing. In recent years, social conservatives have resurfaced “The Two-Income Trap” and argued that its findings support their case for more stay-at-home mothers. Warren counters that the evidence indicates mothers need more family-friendly policies to support them.

Over the last 20 years, the economic stress on families has “only gotten worse,” Warren told Insider recently.

“When countries don’t support families and families are under greater stress, there’s a lot of fallout, including changes in birthrates,” she said.

Warren and other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates ran on far-reaching pro-family policies, including universal child-care, paid family leave, and “baby bonds.”

“Universal child-care is another form of infrastructure. We build roads and bridges so that people can go to work,” Warren told Insider. “If we want parents to be able to go to work, then they need child-care. Opposition to universal child-care is opposition to making our economy work for everyone, both parents and non-parents.”

But it’s going to be challenging to convince any Republican lawmakers to support Biden’s American Families Plan.

Traditional economic conservatives argue the policy is too expensive and would encourage single parenthood and dependency on government programs. Social conservatives oppose the policy in part because it benefits families with two working parents more than those with a stay-at-home parent. Universal child-care has been proven to significantly boost women’s employment, which undermines conservative efforts to encourage stay-at-home parenting.

President Richard Nixon vetoed a bipartisan government-funded child-care policy in 1971, citing “fiscal irresponsibility” and the “family‐weakening implications” of supporting mothers in the workforce. But some conservative lawmakers support a version of government subsidized paid leave. The Trump administration, with Democratic support, extended paid family leave to most federal employees last year.

Lyman Stone, an adjunct fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says the birthrate decline is a “crisis” that can only be solved with a slew of pro-natal policies and increased immigration. He supports Romney’s version of a child allowance as a way to boost fertility, but he doesn’t like Biden’s family policies.

Stone sees Democrats’ universal childcare and paid leave policies as “transparently discriminatory” towards socially conservative and religious families, many of whom want to stay home with their kids and don’t like the idea of government-run daycares or schools. He argues that the debate over family policy boils down to a “culture war” over “public values, norms,” and “what a socially-approved lifestyle looks like.”

“We all know that kids who grow up with a parent at home are more likely to grow up and become Republican. It’s this simple,” he said. “They’re more likely to be religious, they’re more likely to do all these things that are just very highly partisan coded. And so one side wants to get all the kids in daycare and one side doesn’t.”

He added, “We live in a tribal society where everybody’s just thinking about how these policies serve their tribe.”

But there is some convergence between progressives and younger social conservatives on economically populist pro-family policy. Stone argues that both traditional conservatives and liberals have designed their family policy to promote work, rather than to do what’s best for families. He supports a government-funded childcare policy that would pay stay-at-home parents — which some progressives also back — so as not to incentivize working outside the home.

“These aren’t programs for families, these are programs for employers,” Stone sad. “These are programs designed to increase labor-force participation and supply a more easily regulated labor market that have just been rebranded as family policies.”

GOP lawmakers and other conservatives have already begun lining up against Biden’s “human infrastructure” proposals. Responding to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s tweet calling paid leave, childcare, and caregiving “infrastructure,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote, “I don’t think any of those things are infrastructure, but you know what is??? THE WALL.”

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