One Child, Two Child

Imagine living in a society where the government strictly dictated how many children you could have, and imposed crippling fines if your family exceeded its limit.  It is an Orwellian concept, the kind of repressive, intrusive, Big Brother/Big Government run amok plot line that has given rise to countless movies and books about soulless future societies.

Except that such a government and policy actually exists, and has for decades — in China.  Since the ’70s, China has limited families to one child, in an effort to curb its population growth.  China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, instituted the policy so that “the fruits of economic growth are not devoured by population growth.”  That decision was applauded by some advocates who were urging governments to take aggressive steps to control overpopulation; indeed, the United Nations Fund For Population Activities actually gave China an award for its decision.

As the New York Times reports, China’s one-child policy has had brutal consequences that include forced abortions, infanticide by rural farming families that prefer boys over girls, and a resulting lopsided imbalance in males and females in the Chinese population.  And now China is changing its policy — not because it was inhuman and indefensible in the first instance, but because China realizes it has miscalculated.  As a result of the one-child policy, China’s birth rate isn’t sufficient to support its rapidly aging population, so now China is declaring that couples can have two children.

There’s skepticism, however, about whether China’s abrupt policy change will work.  Even if couples of child-bearing age decide to have a second child, those offspring won’t be part of the Chinese workforce for years.  What’s more, China’s population has now been conditioned to accept one-child families, and couples are very sensitive to the economic and emotional costs of having a second child.  And even if the birth rate increases as a result of the policy change, China’s population will begin to decline and the imbalance of young workers versus old pensioners will continue to grow.

Those who advocate aggressive government decisions to address perceived social problems would do well to consider China’s one-child policy, which shows that governments not only can be brutal, but they can also be dead wrong.  And if you were an older member of Chinese society, how comfortable would you be with your position in the face of bad demographic statistics and the economic burdens of supporting a growing number of retirees?  Would a government that enforces a one-child policy in an effort to control its economy hesitate to take steps directed at the other end of the age spectrum to restore what it considers to be a proper balance to its population?

The Fertility Factor

On Friday former Florida governor Jeb Bush — who apparently is entertaining notions of a run for the White House — gave an interesting speech on immigration in which “fertility” came into play

Bush is a proponent of immigration reform who believes that immigration is good for the United States.  (Of course, it’s hard to argue with that proposition, in view of the fact that the vast majority of Americans trace their family trees to hardy, self-sacrificing, risk-taking immigrants.)  In making the economic case for reform, Bush noted that immigrants start more businesses, have more intact families, and are more “fertile” — leading to a younger population.

Odd to hear politicians talking about “fertility,” isn’t it?  It’s a subject that makes people uncomfortable.  Those of us who lived through the “population bomb” era remember the dire predictions of mass starvation, food riots, and other threats from overpopulation, so how can having large families suddenly be a good thing again?  There are socioeconomic and religious and other factors at play as well.  Unmarried teenagers are fertile, but we aren’t encouraging them to have babies to help the country grow.  “Native-born” Americans, to use Bush’s phrase, are fertile, too — in the sense that they are physically capable of having children — but many of them have taken steps to control that fertility in order to end up with manageable families they can provide for.  Those families think they are being responsible.  Is Bush suggesting, instead, that they are being selfish and unpatriotic?

The mathematics of population growth, maintenance, and decline are indisputable.  Around the developed world, there are countries that are shrinking, with birthrates that are too low to fully replace those who die.  The demographic reality has a devastating political impact, because without young people to pay for the generous retirement and health care and housing programs for the aged, the social welfare model becomes unsupportable.  That’s why many countries with low birth rates are taking steps to encourage young couples to have larger families.  Have more children, so they can grow up, get jobs, pay taxes, and help those long-lived seniors enjoy their comfortable retirements!

Perhaps America will join the list of countries that provide economic incentives for larger families — or perhaps we’ll achieve that result through policies that welcome more of those “fertile” immigrants.  Either way, look for “fertility” to be an increasing topic of national conversation in the years to come.