Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: A Biden baby boom?

Washington’s new family-friendly consensus doesn’t run as deep as it appears

America’s population is growing — but not as quickly as some would like. This week, the US census bureau announced that the United States is now a country of 331 million people. The increase of 7 percent since 2010 means the last decade has seen the slowest 10-year population rise since the Great Depression.

Central to this story is America’s tumbling fertility rate, which has slumped to around 1.7 children per woman, well below the replacement rate. As recently as 2008, the rate was over two children per woman. If that doesn’t seem like a big difference, consider the fact that there would have been 5.8 million more babies born in the last decade if American fertility rates had continued at 2008 levels.

There are good reasons to worry about this decline. Economists fear that a dwindling workforce will struggle to fund the entitlements of an ageing population and a less dynamic economy will bee stuck on a permanently lower growth path. Less narrowly actuarial critiques argue that vital, thriving and successful societies generally have higher birth rates — and are places where couples can have as many children as they say they want. Surveys show that Americans are having fewer children than they would like, and often start families later than they had hoped. Add to that the geopolitical case for a growing population: the more Americans there are, the better the country’s chances in the battle with China for supremacy.

All of this has helped make the argument that America should do more to support families an emerging point of consensus in Washington. The Biden administration doubtless has that in mind when it came up with the American Families Plan, a multi-trillion dollar piece of legislation announced this week that would significantly expand government support for American parents and their children. Biden wants to introduce universal preschool education and expand childcare subsidies to make sure that low- and middle-income Americans never spend more than 7 percent of their income on childcare costs. He also plans to extend an annual child tax credit and allowance of $3,600 for children under six and $3,000 for older children that was introduced during the pandemic.

Some of the conservatives who have been calling for more government support for families have balked at Biden’s proposals. To take a particularly intemperate example, J.D. Vance, the author of the bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy who is now running for Senate in Ohio, called the idea of universal childcare a “massive subsidy to the lifestyle preferences of the affluent over the preferences of the middle and working class.” Vance’s souped-up rhetoric points to a philosophical difference that soon emerges once you examine the apparent pro-family consensus. Republicans — unsurprisingly — would rather see support for families in the form of tax credits than in an expansion in the state’s direct provision of services to its citizens. The Trumpist Senator, Josh Hawley, has introduced legislation to that effect.

The administration, however, doesn’t just want to see higher birth rates, but an expanded work force, with more American women going back to work once they have had children. The political risk is that voters agree with Vance and that childcare subsidies are seen as a bung to professional-class Democrats and aren’t as received in working-class households. Indeed, many liberals see keeping more women in the workforce as a higher priority than supporting American families. As the progressive writer, Elizabeth Breunig, recently pointed out, some on the left have fretted that Biden’s cash allowance for children might encourage traditional gender roles instead of abolishing them.

The assumptions of these arguments transpose the priorities and interests of the college-educated upper middle class on everyone else, for whom professional self-actualisation is not the be all and end all. As Bruenig writes, “Standing behind the counter at [fast-food restaurant] Arbys is no doubt a thrilling adventure in public affairs, but I still find it hard to begrudge mothers who would prefer to stay at home — especially considering the astronomical costs of child care.”

For now, the politics surrounding Biden’s family plan are fluid. Republicans are divided over how to respond and a pre-dominant conservative critique is yet to emerge. And though Biden’s proposals are not without their political pitfalls, his case is strengthened immeasurably by the consensus on one simple premise: that America needs more babies.

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