The Rebirth of America's Pro-Natalist Movement

Activists on the right and left want policies that will reverse the country’s baby bust. But the broader culture—and Congress—don’t seem to care.

Regis Duvignau / Reuters

America needs more babies.

That’s what policymakers seem to have decided, from the White House to Capitol Hill. Congress spent November considering the Child Tax Credit, a measure that reduces the federal income taxes owed by families with kids. The Senate and the House both voted to raise the credit in their recent tax bills, which will soon be reconciled. Meanwhile, two Democratic senators, Michael Bennet and Sherrod Brown, proposed their own version of an increase. And led by Ivanka Trump, the Trump administration has been softly pushing a child-care tax deduction and federal paid-maternity-leave program.

These programs have been sold as ways to support struggling middle-class families, but they also address another issue: declining birth rates. Government data suggests the U.S. has experienced drops in fertility across multiple measures in recent years. Even Hispanic Americans, who have had high fertility rates compared to other ethnic groups in recent decades, are starting to have fewer babies. Lyman Stone, an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who blogs about fertility in his spare time, called this year’s downward fertility trend “the great baby bust of 2017.”

These are the seeds of a nascent pro-natalist movement, a revived push to organize American public policy around childbearing. While putatively pro-family or pro-child policymaking has a long history in the U.S., the latest push has a new face. It’s more Gen X than Baby Boom. It’s pro-working mom. And it upends typical left-right political valences: Measures like the Child Tax Credit find surprising bipartisan support in Congress. Over the last year or so, the window of possibility for pro-natalist policies has widened.

Even so, proponents of child-friendly policies, left and right, are deeply skeptical that the government will prove willing to put family at the center of its laws—or that the government can change current birth-rate trends. Ultimately, a shared cultural commitment to the importance of children is the factor that will determine America’s baby-making future.

Across the developed world, birth rates are below replacement level, meaning women don’t have enough children to replenish the population. Pro-natalists argue that this will have devastating consequences. By contrast, they say, having kids has lots of upsides. “People want it. Society needs it. We want the economy to grow,” said Stone said in an interview.

At least in Europe and the U.S., birth rates tend to lag behind what women desire. According to data reported by the Pew Research Center in 2014, 40 percent of American women approaching the end of their childbearing years say they have fewer kids than they had wanted.

The argument that having more kids is good for society is a little bit trickier. Some environmentalists argue that population control is key to protecting the earth’s resources. Others say a childless lifestyle might be preferable to the life of a parent. Some philosophers even argue that it’s immoral to have kids at all.

Pro-natalists say societal well-being—and democracy itself—depend on Americans’ willingness to procreate. “It’s not that common that love is a policy argument,” Stone said. But “the most important part of human well-being is family.” And “that’s not a subjective statement,” he added. “That’s an objective one” supported by public-health literature.

Jonathan Last, The Weekly Standard’s digital editor and author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, takes a more somber view: If people in authoritarian societies have more children than citizens of liberal democracies, “over the long haul, those people inherit the earth,” he said. The economics of a shrinking global population could lead to chaos and desperate political acts, he predicted: “In the course of the next 50 or 100 years, you could wind up in a world that is unstable and unpleasant and illiberal.”

The economic case for more babies is fairly straightforward: More workers presumably yield more productivity. As Stone said, “There is no economy that has managed to knock out gangbuster growth with a declining population.” And a wild imbalance between populations of the non-working elderly and strapping young people can wreak havoc: “As governments raise taxes on a dwindling working-age population to cover the growing burdens of supporting the elderly,” wrote the journalist Phillip Longman in a 2006 essay for Foreign Policy, “young couples may conclude they are even less able to afford children than their parents were.”

Stone tossed in a final reason for society to support baby-making: “The history of humanity is long, and it rarely goes a century without a major war. You need warm bodies to fill the uniforms,” he said. This isn’t the most common justification for pro-natalism, he admitted—it’s “the one that gets me teased the most.”

Pro-natalism sometimes has dark undertones. Steve King, the Iowa Republican lawmaker, has spoken about the need to “restore our civilization”; in March, he tweeted support for the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who, King said, understood “that culture and demographics are our destiny” and can’t be restored “with somebody else’s babies.” In fringe alt-right internet circles, a controversial Mormon blogger issued a “white-baby challenge” to grow the white population in the U.S.

Laura Lovett, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, sees parallels between today’s worries around demographic change and the eugenics movement of the 1920s and ’30s. Fear about women going to college and not having as many children was coupled with an anti-immigrant anxiety, similar to what some on the right feel today, she said. Eugenicists promoted a “four-child norm” among native-born, white members of the middle class, “which really becomes the normative size of American families after the Second World War,” she said.

For the most part, these populist voices on the right have not been leading the recent pro-natalist wave. Ross Douthat, a columnist at The New York Times, recently tweeted his frustration that pro-Trump politicians like King and the former White House adviser Steve Bannon don’t seem to care about policies like the Child Tax Credit. “I want them to stop and think about why populist movements elsewhere in the West actually try to have a pro-family policy agenda to match their demographic worries,” he wrote, “while American right-populism still lets Wall Street write its economic policy.”

His complaint gets at one of the central political problems facing pro-natalism: It often sits in tension with ardently free-market conservatism. “Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans … don’t care at all about that stuff,” said Last. “This is one of those real conflicts between what the market wants … and the things that society needs.” If all someone cares about is free markets, he added, “it’s very hard to find a way to effectively place value on things like the creation of new workers 30 years from now. It’s just too long-term.”

Even though Congress will almost certainly raise the Child Tax Credit in its final overhaul bill, benefits to low- and middle-income families will likely end up limited, in part because of Republicans’ dislike of entitlement spending. The credit is currently structured as a tax reduction: Families that pay federal income taxes get a discount for each kid they have. But for almost half of Americans—including low- and middle-income workers who don’t make enough to owe federal income taxes—the benefit is significantly less. For people who don’t work or make less than $3,000, it doesn’t apply at all.

This imbalance would be exacerbated by the House and Senate proposals. Currently, the Child Tax Credit for jointly filing married couples is capped at $110,000; for families who make more than that, it’s reduced. Both chambers’ plans raise that cap significantly; the Senate bill places the threshold at $500,000. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah pushed to make the credit refundable against payroll taxes, which would make it more beneficial to working-class families. Their efforts got little traction and quietly failed as the Senate passed its bill late last week. Douthat called it “a lonely battle for a pittance of a refundable tax credit for American families in the midst of a baby bust,” which “nobody in professional populist conservatism seems interested in making … a cause célèbre.”

There are a few exceptions, of course. Ivanka Trump has crisscrossed Capitol Hill advocating for her child-care policies and has spoken on these issues around the country, arguing that changing demographics and family structures warrant a tax-code overhaul. Child-friendly policies fit nicely with her personal brand—her latest book, Women Who Work, encourages women to reach the heights of both the professional world and maternal femininity.

And yet, Ivanka Trump’s rehabilitation of the working mom doesn’t seem quite right, said Elizabeth Ananat, an associate professor at Duke who is affiliated with its Center for Child and Family Policy. “Her notion [is] that the working woman was a rundown, unglamorous service worker … and is now a curated, beautiful, successful, glamorous person,” she said. “It’s a very aspirational image—which isn’t necessarily bad, to have glamour. But that is not the typical working mom.” Ivanka’s policies on paid maternal leave and child care share a similarly miscalibrated view of the average family, Ananat argued: Their structure means “it would be a lot of money to each family like hers.”

Debate about family-friendly policymaking is very much happening on conservative terms. Today’s policy proposals are a far cry from the 1970s, when a comprehensive child-care program almost became law, but was vetoed by President Nixon. Over the past four decades, policymaking has shifted away from government-provided services toward a model that privileges workers and work-based benefits, Lovett said. “It’s about determining that we’re not going to provide the services. We’re going to provide services only through employment.”

Still, Ivanka Trump has managed to expand this conservative debate around child-centered policies. Paid leave “has not been completely within the conversation in a lot of Republican circles for quite a while,” said Angela Rachidi, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Even today, had it not been for proposals around paid leave from the Trump campaign … I’m not sure necessarily there would be the same conversation that we’re having right now.”

For all the debate over the Child Tax Credit and paid family leave, governments that have pursued such approaches before have had mixed success trying to boost fertility with cash. These policies may make it slightly easier to be a parent and help women stay in the labor force, but it’s not clear that they’ll lead to more babies. In reality, attitudes about family size are “80 percent culture, 90 percent culture,” said Last. “Why do we spend all of our time talking about the policy end of it? You’re sitting at a control panel, and there are buttons for policy. There are no buttons for culture.”

Recent television shows and movies like The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men show how powerfully massive birth-rate drops grip the popular imagination: In both cases, biologically and environmentally driven infertility lead to political chaos. But in America’s case, the causes of infertility seem less biological than social.

There are so many possible explanations for why Americans are having fewer kids, said Last. For one, declining religiosity might mean fewer people feel drawn to have a bigger family. “My Mormon friends are all having kids. They’re doing fine,” he said. “It’s my NPR-listening liberal friends who don’t have kids.” Millennials hit hard by the recession might also lack the cash to support a child. People may have trouble finding long-term partners, or they may just think having a kid wouldn’t fit with their personal lives. This is what makes pro-natalism so tough: It’s hard to think of a comprehensive solution to such a multi-faceted, diffuse problem.

All that’s left for earnest demographers to do, perhaps, is evangelize. “I tell people, ‘You know, get married, make sure you love your partner,’” said Last. “‘And then go have too much to drink and make bad decisions.’”