In the course of talking about how great our low-fertility future is, Froma Harrop argues:
Scaremongering over demographics is a divide-and-conquer strategy: Convince younger workers that they are paying for plush programs sure to collapse by the time they get old, and they’ll bring them down. And as a double-scoop, say that these programs make the “demographic winter” worse by having government replace the children who traditionally supported their elders. For example:
“The most insidious effect of the Social Security and Medicare regimes is that they actually shift economic incentives away from having children,” Jonathan V. Last, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, says in his book, “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.”
Here’s a counter-argument: These programs reassure parents bearing the considerable expense of raising children that they won’t be destitute if they can’t save enough for their old age.
In general, I find that arguing opinions over these sorts of matters isn’t particularly productive–people usually wind up suggesting that their preferred policies will produce the best outcomes. Funnily enough. That’s why What to Expect is heavily data-driven, and relies almost entirely on research. (For example, I wish that abortion was illegal–and I think there are compelling moral and philosophical reasons to ban it. But the data suggests that abortion does not today play a significant role in depressing fertility rates in the United States.)
Anyway, the reason I suggest in What to Expect that Social Security may be crowding out incentives for having kids is that there are two recent studies that have looked at the question closely and tried to isolate the effects. Both teams came to the conclusion that Social Security depresses the American fertility rate by about 0.5 children. (You can read them here and here.) These studies are, of course, referenced in the notes. If Harrop had read What to Expect a little more closely, she would have seen them.
Mind you, this isn’t to say that these two studies are the final word on the subject. I’d go further and suggest that we shouldn’t delude ourselves about the power of social science to provide definitive answers to such big, complicated questions. As I say in the book, the limits of social science are even nearer than we think.
All of that said, however, it strikes me that starting the discussion from a base of data is probably more fruitful than beginning with your ideological preferences and just riffing from there. I like Policy A, therefore Policy A must create better outcomes.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Harrop here. Maybe she’s made intensive study of entitlement policy and the fertility rate and is basing her counter-argument on research. And certainly, like in the case of abortion, there are moral cases to be made for Social Security and the entitlement state–it may be that such programs are worth having despite whatever costs they incur in terms of fertility. That’s certainly a defensible position; one that I probably agree with, actually.
But in that case, it would be more helpful for Harrop to simply make that moral case without trying to delude people into believing that the good she is selling comes for free (in terms of fertility). Whatever your preferences on entitlements are, the evidence suggests that it does not.