The Empty Playground and the Welfare State
How government policy discourages people from having children

(Darren Gygi)


Gilbert’s essay was titled “What Do Women Really Want?” and his answer to Freud’s famous question is the obvious one: Different women want different things, and some of these differences form predictable patterns. His “traditionals” and “postmoderns” have different values and interests, on average. It is this basic fact that underlies the “mommy wars.” Hence our inability to wish those wars away.

Hilary Rosen, a Democratic lobbyist and talking head, set off a brief furor in April when she said on CNN that Ann Romney had no understanding of the economic circumstances of most American women because she had never worked a day in her life. Rosen is no more representative of “working moms” than Romney is of stay-at-homers: Each has far too much money for that. But the warring sentiments expressed during the brief controversy — Rosen, under pressure from the White House, apologized — reflected an enduring conflict. Many moderns regard traditionals as self-indulgent and retrograde. Many traditionals regard moderns and postmoderns as selfish and materialistic.

This division helps to account for the political weakness of “family-friendly” policies: They invariably help some families more than others. Moderns are the core constituency for subsidized day care. Traditionals and postmoderns often resent it as a tax on their life choices. These policies might be thought to counteract the negative effect of entitlements on fertility. But their actual effect is ambiguous because different women respond to them differently. The availability of subsidies might make it easier for women with no children to have one, or women with one child to have a second. They are much less likely to lead a woman with two children to have a third. They may even discourage her, precisely by making it easier to lead a life with one or two kids plus paid employment. If women considering having a third child are also considering scaling back their participation in the labor market, subsidized day care may be something they pay for in taxes more than it is something they receive as a benefit.

Which effect will predominate depends on, among other things, how many women of each type a given society has. In a society where full-time paid employment by women is nearly universal and almost nobody has three or four children, day-care subsidies might well increase fertility; not in a society with the opposite conditions. “Family-friendly workplaces,” Gilbert notes, are also friendlier to some family structures than to others — families with fewer children are more workplace-friendly, one might say — and their effects too are therefore ambiguous.

Discouraging middle-class adults from having children is one of the federal government’s most important social policies, even if its existence is not widely recognized. It is hard to justify it in the absence of a domestic overpopulation crisis. We would never have adopted an explicit policy to this effect democratically. Neutrality on family size seems a much better policy for a limited government in a free society. We ought to end the federal government’s bias against having children.

The conceptually simplest way to eliminate the negative effects of entitlements on fertility would be to eliminate the entitlements. No way that’s happening. Some proposed reforms to entitlement programs would reduce the effect — but not all proposals would. Raising payroll taxes to finance future benefits would not help, and could hurt. Partially converting Social Security into a system of private savings accounts, whatever the other merits of the idea, would not reduce the program’s implicit tax on childrearing and could, again, increase it.

May 28, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 10

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Rob Long reviews The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, by Jonah Goldberg.
  • Arnold Kling reviews Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society, by Jim Manzi.
  • Jay Nordlinger on the composer Michael Hersch.
  • Charles C. W. Cooke on Walt Disney.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Sound of My Voice.
  • Kyle Smith on the NFL draft.
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Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .