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“Never read the comments” is generally good advice. On large sites especially, comment sections tend to be full of personal attacks and idiocy of all kinds. (Wisdom of Crowds, being a smaller and more thoughtful community, is an exception.) Still, every now and then I break my self-imposed rule and look at what the readers of the New York Times have to say. I always regret it.
Take this Ross Douthat column from earlier this month in support of Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act. The bill would create a national child allowance providing $350 a month to parents of kids 5 and under, and $250 a month for kids up to 17. Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Yuval Levin have already made the case for the plan more persuasively than I could, so if you’re interested in its merits I encourage you to read their work. The upshot is that Americans are not having as many children as they want to have, and cost is a big reason why. Romney’s proposal would help parents who would like to start or grow their families do so, cutting child poverty in the process.
To me this seems like a no-brainer. But here’s what some Times commenters had to say.
These are not cherry-picked or even the worst examples I could find. They are a few of the designated “NYT Picks” that appear at the top of the comments section—in which one reader endorses China’s one-child policy, another describes the U.S. like it’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and the last mentions his daughter is white two times in the same sentence. All this because a Republican senator would like to send parents a few hundred dollars once a month. What is going on here?
The charitable answer, I think, is that these are well-meaning people who are simply worried about the planet and the environmental impact of more children. They don’t necessarily believe people shouldn’t have kids if they want them; they just don’t think politicians should make raising the fertility rate a national objective. And when framed that way—should the government encourage childbearing?—I understand why it gives people pause. I can see protesters dressed as handmaids descending on Washington already.
But this strikes me as misguided on a few fronts. For one, our safety-net programs depend on future workers sustaining them, and a world where retirees greatly outnumber employees risks bankrupting the entire system. We can of course welcome more immigrants, but immigrants age too, and with fertility rates declining across the world immigration alone isn’t a long-term solution.
There are also deeper concerns than accounting. The gap between the number of kids women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of kids they will probably have (1.8) is at its highest level in 40 years A child allowance could help fix this by making the cost of one more kid a little less daunting. In other words, the Romney plan isn’t a theocratic plot to force women to bear more children; it’s a sensible policy that would help more Americans live the lives they say they want to live.
At least, that’s the goal; the Times comment section will be pleased to know it may not even work. Other governments that have tried to raise their fertility rates have seen limited success at best. None have managed to reach even the replacement rate of 2.1 children born per woman—the bare minimum needed to keep population size constant without significant immigration. Maybe an extra $350 per month will allow some parents to feel financially secure enough to try for one more child. But nothing suggests we’ll return to 19th-century family sizes when the average person prefers just two or three kids and childcare and education costs remain high.
This is where my charity for the anti-natalists’ position begins to run out. If a child allowance will barely budge the number of new kids born and yet still draws their ire, I can’t help but wonder if their concern isn’t a population explosion but any population increase at all. The other usual objections to socially conservative policies don’t apply here when the Romney plan would benefit children regardless of their parents’ marital status. No, for these commenters at least, the common thread is overpopulation all the way down; you'd think the 1970s never happened.
Am I reading too much into some random musings on the internet? Maybe, but I don't so. This kind of thinking isn’t contained to the Times. NPR asks if we should be “having kids at all in the age of climate change.” NBC publishes a column headlined “Science proves kids are bad for Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them.” The Reddit thread r/antinatalism, where users regularly denigrate mothers as “breeders,” boasts nearly 100,000 members. I don’t know how large the audience for their position is, but when the Times features readers praising China’s regime of forced abortions and sterilizations, I worry it’s not small.