Are You Sure You Don’t Want Kids? What If We Bribed You?

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Library of Congress
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Library of Congress

There have been some recent news stories about conservative lawmakers’ borderline wacky schemes to get the birth rate up. I call the schemes wacky because they do not seem like they were cooked up with the input of anybody who is on the fence about wanting kids (or wanting more of them).

Scheme One originates (where else?) in Texas, where conservative lawmakers introduced a bill last week that would give massive property tax breaks to straight couples who owned property and had many, many children. H.B. 2889 would give heterosexual couples with four children a 40 percent break on their property taxes, and all the way up to a 100 percent property tax break for families with 10 or more children, provided the parents were married.

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I’m no tax expert, but it seems like that sort of law, in addition to being homophobic and creepy, would make it so that a theoretical school district containing only families with 10 or more children would have a property tax base of $0 with which to operate its public schools. Conservatives have made no effort to hide their hatred for public education, but until some pretty seismic shifts in the legal system occur, public schools still must exist. Again, I’m not an accountant, but it seems like a bad idea!

So, who is this incentivizing? I cannot envision a world in which avoiding paying property taxes would be worth the physical and emotional toll that having 10 fucking kids would have on me.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., March 4, 2023. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters</div>

Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., March 4, 2023.

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Scheme Two comes to us from planet CPAC, where former president Donald Trump introduced a plan last week to turn America into The Jetsons meets The Duggars by filling “freedom cities” with flying cars and giving out something called a “baby bonus,” which would convince people to give birth by giving them money. I didn’t watch the speech, because life is finite and I want to spend as little of what remains as possible listening to that man’s voice, but I did read about it. During the speech, the former guy said, “We will support baby boomers and we will support baby bonuses for a new baby boom, how does that sound? I want a baby boom. You men are so lucky out there. You are so lucky, men.”

Ah yes, finally. Something to make having children easier on the men.

Never mind the fact that Trump and the modern GOP have stood between a Democratic plan for something similar to a “baby bonus” known as “expanding the Child Tax Credit”—a very popular idea that already exists and has existed for quite some time (Republican politicians were key proponents of the Child Tax Credit, back in the day).

Washington succeeded in expanding the credit during the height of the pandemic by increasing the amount paid out, and by paying it out as monthly direct deposits to qualifying parents—but Republicans and centrists failed to make those changes permanent.

That’s due in part because Republicans and Fox News personalities threw a conniption back in 2021 when this was proposed. Per Media Matters:

“[O]n the June 26 edition of Fox’s Unfiltered with Dan Bongino, the host accused Democrats of intentionally ‘trying to destroy the country’ by ‘giving away money’ to people ‘for doing nothing except having kids.’

Bongino read the headline and sub-headline from a Washington Post story: ‘The IRS on July 15 will start delivering a monthly payment of $300 per child under six, and $250 per child six or older for the rest of the year—without any action required,’ adding, ‘Robbing people of the dignity of work.’ (Bongino seemed to be using the ‘no action required’ phrase in the Post story, which meant that most people don’t have to sign up for the payments, to instead make it sound like it was rewarding the unemployed.)”

Fox & Friends got in on it, too:

“A segment on the June 22 edition of Fox & Friends displayed a chyron that said, ‘Biden unveils largest child tax credit hike’—employing a term normally used for tax increases to refer instead a refundable tax credit that will put more money directly into people’s pockets. [...]

[Guest Charles] Payne said, the refundable tax credit now ‘aims to pay people extra money for not working’ and was part of other government programs such as Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that together would create a ‘Faustian deal’ for people not to work. [Host Steve] Doocy, in turn, asserted, ‘Critics are saying the government should not be paying people to have more children.’”

I can’t wait to see how they try to spin the Texas plan, and the Trump plan to pay the men to repeatedly fill their wives up with baby syrup. (For what it’s worth, Tucker Carlson has already praised the Texas plan, as a version of it already exists in Hungary. Paying people to have kids is good, so long as it was Viktor Orbán’s idea.)

A “baby bonus” and “free property taxes in exchange for pumping out 10 kids” are two of the stupidest plans I’ve ever heard to encourage people to have children, and I’m qualified to make that assessment because I both have been pondering the systemic barriers to having a second child and have written for a TV show where one of the main tenets of all of the main characters was coming up with incredibly stupid plans.

These Republican proposals to boost the birth rate were written with men in mind. More specifically, they were written with shitty dads in mind—the kind of men who believe their role in their families is to provide a paycheck and nothing more. No emotional support, no logistical support, no emotional labor, no housework, no care work. Shitty dads who think their job is to make a deposit into their wives and then make a deposit into the bank, tend to think childrearing boils down to money. To the rest of us, there’s a little more to it than that.

It’s true that the American birth rate is concerningly low. According to the Population Reference Bureau, at the turn of the 20th century, the average American woman had seven children (surviving to adulthood back then, however, was rarer than it is now).

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During the post-World War II “Baby Boom,” the average woman had four. In 1976, the average American woman had three. By 2008, that number was down to two. And in 2020, the birth rate sank to its lowest recorded level: Now, the average woman has 1.62 children. Anything below 2.1 is considered below the “replacement rate”—meaning unless something is done, our population will decline, which many experts say is bad news, long-term, for the economy, and means fewer tax-paying workers to fund things like Social Security.

What’s more is that all indicators point to a continued decrease in the number of births, because people say they’re unlikely to have kids in the future. According to a Pew survey published in 2021:

“Some 44 percent of non-parents ages 18 to 49 say it is not too or not at all likely that they will have children someday, an increase of seven percentage points from the 37 percent who said the same in a 2018 survey. Meanwhile, 74 percent of adults younger than 50 who are already parents say they are unlikely to have more kids, virtually unchanged since 2018.”

Most of these people aren’t persuadable. Fifty-six percent of childless Americans under 50 cite “not wanting children” as the reason they don’t have them. Among parents who say they won’t have more children, 63 percent say it’s because they don’t want them.

Which leaves us with 43 percent of childless Americans under 50 who do or might want kids but aren’t having them for other reasons, and 37 percent of people who are parents already who aren’t having more children for other reasons. The most common reason cited among this group is age and medical issues. A “baby bonus” won’t fix either of those things.

Which means that the percentage of people who say they’re unlikely to have any more children who would be persuadable by financial incentives sits at around 5.2 percent of parents and 7.3 percent of those who don’t have kids. Clearly a more multifaceted approach is necessary.

I’m all for giving money to people who want to be parents but can’t because they don’t have enough money. But half-baked plans like “baby bonuses” or homophobic, rigidly pro-marriage tax laws that benefit fecund Texas homeowners barely address the systemic reasons that American family size is shrinking.

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Politicians could actually listen to the concerns of parents and make moves to secure broadly popular initiatives—like paid family leave, affordable childcare, and move to fix issues with our health-care system that often lead to suboptimal outcomes for mothers.

They could work to make college more affordable or free. They could move to make schools safer for children by regulating who has access to firearms. They could stop the bleed from the teaching profession by paying teachers and early childhood education specialists living wages. They could investigate whether environmental issues like corporate pollutants may be impacting people’s fertility or increasing occurrence of pregnancy loss. They could support infertility treatments for couples who want kids but haven’t been able to get pregnant. Hell, they could simply make it easier for people who want to move here and have kids to migrate to the U.S.

If we want a blueprint for how to raise the birth rate without resorting to state-sponsored reproductive coercion or ham-fisted check-writing campaigns, we could take a look at Germany.

As recently as this past decade, Germany had one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, and it was falling. The government decided that this was an urgent matter and took action. In 2015, Germany allowed 1 million migrants from war-torn Syria to settle there, and while that influx helped boost the country’s birth rate, it alone was not responsible for making children a more attractive choice for German women.

Here’s how Germany raised its birth rate during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Reuters report:

“Policies that have helped include the expansion of maternity and paternity benefits, investment in state-funded childcare and the extension of school opening hours into the afternoon.[...]

Whereas the United States is almost alone among wealthy nations in not providing paid maternity leave at national level, the German state covers 14 months of paid parental leave, with two months reserved for fathers. The exact amount received depends on top-ups payable by employers.”

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Germany’s birth rate is still not as high as it is in the U.S. (or in other European countries with robust social programs that support parents), but the two are trending in opposite directions.

The answer to our population problem is right in front of us. We need to make big systemic changes if we want big results.

We might never have another baby boom—which is probably for the best, environmentally speaking—but we can stave off economic disaster brought on by a population collapse without reducing half of the population to broodmares or enacting social policy that assumes that a check and a slap on the ass are enough to address the needs of parents.

Maybe if we let Republicans think they invented it, something would actually get done.

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