What to Expect When America's Not Expecting

The GOP must substantively address our ongoing fertility crisis

(NOTE: I apologize for not getting a post up last week. My wife and I just had our third child — we now have three boys three and under! I am proudly doing my patriotic duty as an American.)

Like much of the western world, America is in the midst of an unprecedented fertility crisis. And while this “baby bust” phenomenon was clearly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it certainly wasn’t caused by it:

Indeed, our total fertility rate (TFR), which is the average number of children American women would expect to have at the end of their reproductive lifetimes, dropped to just 1.635 in 2020 — a record low. The previous record? 1.705 in 2019. The previous record before that? 1.73 in 2018.

The problem here is obvious: for a civilization to continue to thrive or even survive, it must bring more people into the world than it is sending out of it. In order to achieve that one-to-one replacement, it is generally understood that a country needs a TFR of 2.1. A larger TFR means a nation is sustainable and growing, while a smaller TFR implies decline. Our current 1.635 TFR is nearly 25 percent (!) below replacement level.

What’s Causing Our Fertility Decline?

Conservatives often debate the cause of the fertility crisis. Is it economic? Or is it simply the result of a culture increasingly hostile toward family formation? In many ways, it appears to be a bit of both.

Earlier this year, American Compass conducted a survey and asked respondents if they had achieved their desired fertility, i.e. if they had all the children they had wanted to have. Approximately half of all respondents indicated they had not had as many children as they wanted, and this was shown to be true across the board regardless of marital status or socioeconomic class. When asked why they didn’t have more kids, a startling number suggested financial hardship:

There’s no doubt that difficult financial circumstances play a role in many families choosing to have fewer children. So is that the answer? Strengthen the economy, improve the well-being of families, and bada bing, bada boom — no more fertility crisis?

It would stand to reason that if the problem were purely economic then increased household income would correlate with higher fertility. But alas, that’s just not the case — global trends have long shown an inverse correlation between income and fertility. Consider the below figure from a newly released National Vital Statistics report. While not a perfect comparison (educational attainment is correlated with increased household income) the data demonstrates a similar trend in the US:

It’s hard not to look at these numbers and come away believing that higher education, or at least the individualistic, career-oriented, consumerist culture that’s pushed on students at schools of “higher learning,” is a big part of the problem. College is not only delaying the average age of first marriage, but it appears to be significantly depressing TFR. It’s particularly striking to see educational attainment’s dramatic impact on the Black community. Blacks who graduated high school had a TFR of 2.38, while those who graduated college dropped all the way to 1.11. That’s almost 50 percent off replacement level. Is this simply a matter of self-selection, or is it something more sinister?

How Do We Fix It?

It can’t be overstated: this is a civilizational crisis. If nothing is done, this could quite literally end America as we know it. Conservatives seem to recognize the threat, but our Republican policymakers, as they so often do, prefer to approach the problem with a scalpel. Unfortunately, we are going to need a lot more than that. We need a hatchet, a hacksaw — heck, we might even need a blowtorch.

Some may ask: what about President Biden’s American Families Plan? Wouldn’t that encourage family formation? While certain parts of the plan, such as the child allowance, seem like they might encourage working families to have more children, the Biden plan appears to be less focused on natalism and more focused on pushing both mothers and fathers into the work force, allowing the government to take over the role of parent. The Biden plan ultimately subsidizes those with resources who need assistance the least, while imposing the parenting preferences of those elites on the rest of the country. And there’s a reason for that. Terry Schilling, president at American Principles Project — the organization where I work — explained this brilliantly in The Daily Caller:

If Democrats were serious about helping working families afford the costs of childcare and early education, they’d recognize that parents would prefer direct assistance to government programs. As University of Virginia Professor Brad Wilcox recently pointed out, “Poor and working-class families are more likely to prioritize the parental freedom of cash more than child care, whereas the educated and affluent are more likely to value child care… By contrast, the message sent by the push for universal child care is that, ultimately, work matters more than family — and that government knows best how to arrange work and family choices.”

So why are the Democrats pursuing this big government expansion of preschool and childcare if that’s not what working-class families want or need? The obvious answer: because they want to divide the family and conquer, indoctrinating our kids at an early age with wokeism, critical race theory, and gender ideology. It’s quite literally the only thing they care about.

Rather than embrace the big government proposals of the so-called American Families Plan, Republicans should consider promoting other creative policy solutions that would positively impact family formation. Some potential ideas include:

  • Creating stronger financial incentives to marry and have children. One way to do this would be by passing something like Sen. Josh Hawley’s “Parent Tax Credit,” which would provide married parents with $1,000/month in direct assistance and unmarried parents with $500/month, so long as they had one child in the household under the age of 13. Not only would the Parent Tax Credit explicitly incentivize marriage — it’s hard to imagine cohabitors with young kids not taking advantage — but it would have an implicit natalistic effect. Families would be incentivized to extend their window of enjoying the benefit by continuing to have more children.

  • Making FMLA time accessible to everyone by creating a federal paid family leave benefit. Despite being entitled to 12 weeks of FMLA time, many new parents feel financially obligated to return to work early. We should create a benefit to alleviate those financial concerns and encourage parents to spend time with their new child during those first few weeks. One budget-neutral proposal, introduced by Sens. Bill Cassidy and Kyrsten Sinema, accomplishes this by providing a $5,000 child tax credit advance to new parents.

  • Subsidizing stay-at-home parenting. The tax code currently preferences parents who work outside the home by subsidizing childcare. Why not provide stay-at-home parents with the same sort of benefit? Is raising one’s own children not a “good” that the government should be encouraging?

  • Doing away with the college-for-all mentality. The Republican public policy approach to higher education needs to change radically. We should move away from the idea that everyone needs to go to college, not just because of fertility, but because it’s clearly not in everyone’s economic interest to go to college. And, frankly, conservatives shouldn’t be supporting institutions that are indoctrinating our children with anti-American woke nonsense. Instead, we should be subsidizing the building trades and vocational education. Why not encourage young people to pursue more lucrative and fulfilling fields?

  • Demanding a pro-family corporate culture. We should discourage our national obsession with careerism and consumerism. The higher goods are obviously family and community. Recognizing that, we should enact public policy that makes it difficult for large corporations to monopolize their employees’ time off the clock, or discriminate against them for taking care of family obligations.

  • Pushing back against transiency. It’s harder to build lasting relationships when our economy demands that workers move halfway across the country to “achieve their dreams.” We should seek to create good paying jobs across the heartland in every community.

  • Facilitating intergenerational dependency. It’s much easier to raise children when grandma and grandpa live close by and are able to help ease household burdens.

Ultimately, we have to be willing to go big if we are going to reverse this trend. People often overuse the word “crisis,” but this is a crisis, and it’s very real. America is on a path that simply isn’t sustainable. We either get this right, or we enter a permanent state of civilizational decline.