The Case for Rejecting Natalism in Pro-Family Policies

There are lots of great reasons for governments to support families. Juicing the birth rate isn't one of them.

1This month, American families began receiving their first child benefit payments, a truly excellent policy that I hope continues and expands. It’s also been grist for debate: Less the question of “should we financially support families,” to which the answer of just about everyone on the left and even some on the right is a resounding “yes,” but how we support families, and whether the motivations for that support matter. I am skeptical of framing family policy as pro-natalist because it’s a pretty short walk from there to misogyny and racism, a notion that Paul Krugman took up on Twitter this week, and that writer Matt Yglesias disputed. But it does matter why policies are put into place and what they’re expected to achieve, because that shapes how they’re implemented, and it may determine whether or not they continue. And it struck me, too, that the wonky debate about the relationship (or lack thereof) between family policy, natalism, and birth rates is missing a pretty important element: An understanding of why women have children, and how those motivations differ across cultures and economies.

I’ve argued that it’s crucial to offer more robust support to families, but that doing so for the purposes of increasing birthrates is short-sighted and unlikely to be particularly effective — more generous paid parental leave, universal childcare, and baby bucks might tick birth rates up a tiny bit, but they aren’t going to return us to the days of three or four children per woman, as evidenced by the fact that the European countries with the most generous family policies mostly have birth rates that are lower than that of the US (the one exception is France, and their birth rate is only slightly higher than ours).

What I haven’t gotten into — but think is just as important — is the fact that conservative pro-natalists in Europe, and to a growing degree in the US, have latched onto pro-family policies as a way of increasing the birth rate of their white majority and of justifying opposition to immigration. That’s what kicked off this latest round of discussion: At a conservative conference, Hillbilly Elegy author and GOP senate hopeful J.D. Vance praised Hungary’s child payments, and asked, “Why don’t we do that here?” (failing to mention that, thanks to the Democratic plan, we do now do that here, at least until the end of the year). The Hungary child payments, though, were implemented under viciously misogynist, anti-Semitic and racist authoritarian leader Viktor Orban, and were put into place intentionally to combat immigration. “We do not need numbers,” Orban said. “We need Hungarian children.”

Does that matter? In the short term, no, at least not for getting immediate, generous benefits to families. But it certainly matters if family policies are ostensible trade-offs for more restrictive immigration laws, and not just to the would-be immigrants whose futures are foreclosed upon by that kind of deal-making. It matters because, while these policies are remarkably successful at reducing child poverty, stabilizing family life, supporting a generation of kids who are healthier and better-off, and sometimes increasing the fertility rate a little bit, they are not super successful at sending birthrates skyrocketing — and they are particularly unsuccessful at increasing the white birthrates that many pro-natalists want to boost.

Generous social welfare policies have also been used as a wedge issue for white supremacist and nativist European parties, leveraged as an argument against immigration — that essentially, immigrants are coming in, having too many babies, and sucking up the resources of a system that native citizens paid into. In some countries, this argument has worked: Denmark, for example, now has immigration policies that were considered extreme a decade ago, in part because, as one Danish author put it, the national consensus is that “The welfare state is not designed to dole out welfare cheques: it's a Protestant construction founded on every person's responsibility and participation.” Non-native-born people in Denmark are less likely to be employed and those of childbearing age have, on average, more children than native-born Danes; ergo, immigrants are not holding up their end of the bargain; ergo, slam the door on immigrants to protect the Danish welfare state and its generous pro-family benefits.

The terms of the bargain matter. So do the aims.

That’s part of why Paul Krugman argued that lower fertility rates don’t have to be economic Armageddon, as fertility-fearers say they are, and why he’s critical of a conservative “family values” and nativist framing of family policy. “[T]he economic case for pro-natalism is really weak,” he tweeted. “[S]o you're left with some kind of ‘family values’ argument (I mean, look at how fatherhood has mellowed and matured Donald Trump) or, not-so-hidden subtext, the need for more white Christians.”

To this, Matt Yglesias objected (and I think largely missed the point), arguing that “the economic case for investing in parents and children is very strong” (true, and not a rebuttal of what Krugman said) and that challenging the idea that more investment in families = more babies and more babies = good is “very politically counterproductive.” And indeed it is good, as Yglesias says, “to have appealing ideas and to explore the full range of dimensions on which they might appeal.” But there are limits — if a good policy appeals to very bad and dangerous impulses, and could exacerbate and expand those bad and dangerous impulses, certainly there is some danger of unintended consequences in leveraging that appeal, no? For example: I think it’s very good policy to make contraception and abortion free and widely available. There are some people who think that’s good policy because it would mean that fewer immigrant women would have babies. Could reproductive rights advocates use that argument — “free contraception means fewer babies of immigrants” — and maybe get a few people on our side? Sure. But the potential damage would be much broader, and not worth it.

It’s valuable to talk about the economic benefits of pro-family policies, of which there are many. The bad assumption is that pro-natalist policies are the same as, and interchangeable with, pro-family policies. At this particular moment, there’s a lot of overlap, because the kind of pro-family policies that Yglesias, Krugman, and I all support are really the only things pro-natalists can come up with that might juice the birth rate and are also politically feasible (banning women from paid work or outlawing contraception would probably be more effective, but those ideas are not going to get much support). The problem with conflating pro-natalism and family policy, though, is that if it turns out that these very good policies don’t significantly impact the birth rate, or don’t significantly impact the birth rate of the group pro-natalists want to see reproduce at higher rates — for folks like Vance and much of the right in Europe and the US, that’s citizens, not immigrants — then they ostensibly cease to be pro-natalist.

Yglesias takes issue with the idea that natalism is racist, arguing that “The total fertility rate for Black and Hispanic women is higher than for white women. And more to the point, the cohorts of people under 40 who would benefit from these policies are much less white than the population average.” And that’s true! But you’ll also notice that pro-natalist folks, who are mostly on the right, don’t just want more babies or more people; they want more babies from certain groups of people. Usually they’ll say citizens, which of course in the US doesn’t just mean white citizens, but it certainly means a much whiter group than America’s immigrant population, or its would-be immigrant population if we opened our doors to more people. And the same “pro-natalist” members of the Republican Party become far less enthusiastic about large families when those large families are children born to undocumented immigrants or mothers on welfare. That should be a clue that this isn’t just about a colorblind, economics-driven desire for a baby boom.

Were conservatives actually to get on board with pro-family policies interpreted through a pro-natalist lens and extend those policies to Americans, the conservative version would almost certainly only go to American citizens, not anyone residing within America’s borders. If the justification for the policy is to encourage more American women to have babies, then it would follow that the policy should extend only to American women. And I’d bet that those policies would be treated a lot like welfare: With every effort made to push undesirables (black and brown single moms, mostly) off the rolls.

You can make an economic and moral case for pro-family policies without making a pro-natalist case — either that more children of X heritage are needed, or that the world needs more people generally (at 7 billion and rapidly making the planet unlivable, I’m not sure we do!). But Yglesias argues something else: That a larger population means more innovation, because you have more people with good ideas who are all collaborating with each other. “The fact that the ‘lone genius’ is a bit of a myth only further underscores that having more people around gives you more opportunities for those singular individuals to come together and do things,” he writes.

I was struck by this because it’s frankly the exact opposite way that most American parents today think about parenthood, and reminded me more of how women in Niger explained their family size decision-making to me. One reason family size is shrinking in the US is because much more opportunity is available to women, and so women are pushing back the start of their childbearing, which of course means fewer years in which to make babies and, as a result, fewer babies. But lots of American women also at least say that they have fewer children because they feel resource-constrained at the same time as the demands of parenthood are higher than ever, and there is an ambient sense that if you want your children to do well, you have to invest a lot in them — financially, but also in terms of time and emotion.

American parents increasingly do exactly that, and affluent parents do do it to an even greater degree: Wealthy parents spend more money on and time with their children than poorer parents, and the time they spend is more active and more focused on enrichment, connection, and development (this is less about values or aspirations than practical realities: across class lines, parents support the norms of intensive parenting and significant financial and emotional investment in children, it’s just that poorer parents have fewer resources to offer). But this is the calculus: Invest the most you can in each individual child, because that will give you the greatest returns.

For a lot of families, even (especially) relatively affluent ones, that means having one or two children. And frankly it seems to work: These more-invested-in children of smaller families do better on a variety of measures than children with many siblings, who by virtue of the finite resources of time and money spend less time with parents who are more likely to be financially struggling. For the many anxiety-riddled parents navigating an increasingly unequal American society, this model of intensive parenting and maximally investing in each child, and having fewer children to maximize success outcomes, is wholly rational.

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It’s also not how women in many other corners the world over do the math on childbearing, and it’s not what’s rational everywhere. A few years ago, I reported from Niger for the Guardian on the question of why that country has the highest fertility rate in the world. One answer is lack of contraception, which is definitely a challenge. But in actually talking to women without trying to impose my own assumptions — hard to do! — what stood out to me is that rural Nigerien women overwhelmingly saw children as potential sources of wealth and stability, but they did not see their own parenting of those children as having much of an effect on how well those children might do in life. It was less about investment and more about odds. Each child was a new roll of the dice: Maybe they’d succeed, which would benefit the family, and maybe they wouldn’t, in which case you’d better hope you have some others, but success was assumed to be randomly allotted and not tied to parental effort. The more chances of success the better, which means more children. And that was more or less accurate and reasonable: If you’re coming from a rural village in one of the poorest countries in the world, success is pretty randomly allotted, and resources are so scarce that there isn’t a whole lot to individually invest. More children does mean more chances.

The idea Yglesias proposes, that more babies means more innovation which leads to better outcomes, reminded me more of the view among moms in Niger than in New York. And I’d argue that in a wealthy and already-populous country like the US, the New York moms have a point: innovation doesn’t just require bodies, but significant investment in education, a ladder up to opportunity, and a clear relationship between effort and outcome. And regardless of who you think is right — and I’d argue that both groups of women are largely correct in their assessments of what maximizes opportunity in their very different circumstances — when it comes to selling pro-family policy in the United States, it’s helpful that there is this existing framework of investment begetting success.

The US can support many, many more people. But the planet cannot. There are lots of good arguments for investing in children and families, and in the US, those arguments line up with the values that most parents already have, across race and place and class. It’s not a hard sell, and pro-family policies don’t require a pro-natalist bent to earn support — especially when pro-natalism comes with hostility to immigration, even though immigration remains one great way to increase or stabilize the US population and benefit American citizens and immigrants alike, without overburdening the world’s resources.

Promoting pro-family policies without relying on natalism also allows for a feminist framing of those policies, including a greater emphasis on the idea that parents and children need broad social support, countering long-held but steadily changing assumption that it’s a mother’s job alone to care for children. That’s a positive cultural value to reinforce, and approaching family policy from a feminist view will make for family policies that are more progressive and better for families and children. Not all pro-family policies are created equal, and those that treat women as mothers first and members of the labor force second, and that prioritize motherhood over work (for example, by giving women more than a year of paid leave or by not having any mechanism to incentivize fathers to take leave), tend to garner worse results for women than those that treat mothers as both parents and workers and seek to maximize their ability to do both well. Feminist pro-family policies also handily reject the quietly sexist natalist view of women as the class whose primary purpose is creating new workers.

Natalism comes with a whole lot of baggage, limited benefits, and potentially significant costs. Embracing natalism isn’t a necessary for promoting and implementing robust pro-family policies, and it very well may eventually undermine them. So why do it?

xx Jill

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Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash, and it’s hilarious.

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