Elizabeth Crnkovich also contributed to this article.
Social security is about to go belly up, financially speaking. And at the head of this crisis is a demographic disproportion: there are simply too few young people coming into the workforce to support the increasing numbers of elderly baby boomers who are retiring.
In “What’s Really Behind the Entitlement Crisis,” (Wall Street Journal, July 12th), Ben Wattenberg explains that “never-born babies are the root cause of the ‘social deficit’ that plagues nations across the world and threatens to break the bank in many.”
The math is simple. Birthrates have fallen so far and so fast that the thinning ranks of the young can no longer support the burgeoning numbers of retirees in country after country. Greece and Spain are already going over a demographic cliff, and there is not much they can do about it. Governments there and elsewhere can and do try to raise taxes or delay the age of retirement, but this will only delay by a few years the onset of the crisis. Ultimately and inevitably, there will be too few taxpayers to compensate for the deficit.
The problem, at root, is the birth dearth. There are a number of factors contributing to the strange barrenness of this generation of humans. According to Wattenberg, these include delayed marriages, wealth, divorce, legalized abortion, and accessible contraception.
Unfortunately, Wattenberg does not have much in the way of concrete policy proposals to offer. He does suggest that “the place to begin is by recognizing the problem, publicizing it, and trusting that humanity has been around for a long time and is not about to under-breed itself out of existence.”
He criticizes the myth of overpopulation, noting the powerful downdraft this had on fertility. He says that it’s time for a new message, namely, that “The real danger for the future is too few births.”
I would be more specific. It is clear that the myth of overpopulation has played a part, a big part, in driving down the birth rate. The vicious anti-people propaganda of the radical environmental movement has also played a part. When you teach young people that babies are vermin—as some of these groups do—you naturally discourage childbearing. When you teach them that the birth of a baby means the death of a whale, you encourage abortion. Children must be taught that they, and the children that they will one day have, are the ultimate resource, the one resource you cannot do without.
It is by now obvious to all countries with below-replacement birthrates that they have a serious problem. Most have tried to solve it by bribing parents with various kinds of governments subsidies. Their birthrates haven’t risen for the most part (with the exception of America, which we’ll get to in a moment). People are still avoiding having children. The programs are not lucrative enough to affect fertility behavior. Parents invest huge amounts of time, energy, and income on their children. A one-time baby bonus, or even a small monthly payment, hardly makes a dent in these costs.
So what has America done differently? The Republican-controlled Congress in 1994 passed a tax credit of $1,000 for each child under 16, and generously increased the per dependent deduction so that it is now $4,650. This means that young couples can actually lower their taxes by having more children, to the point where young couples of modest income pay virtually no income tax.
While this policy has kept America’s birthrate near replacement, this is not good enough. Young couples should also be sheltered from paying social security taxes, for example. Those who are willing to marry and have children should have their student loans forgiven. They should be exempted from state taxes, from sales tax, from any and all manner of taxation.
After all, they are investing in the future of America in the most fundamental way: by investing in the future generation.
Steve Mosher is the president of Population Research Institute.