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Fertility trouble

Issue: "Social Security breach," Feb. 19, 2005

Politicians tend to talk about Social Security's shortfall as if it is a force of nature like a hurricane or a tornado, something that will happen independent of human choices. In his State of the Union address, for example, President Bush pointed out that 50 years ago, 16 workers paid into Social Security for every retiree who drew benefits. Today, he said, "it's only about three workers and over the next few decades, that number will fall to just two workers per beneficiary."

This is all true, but why is it true? A big part of the answer is that in the 1960s American couples began choosing to have a lot fewer children. The U.S. fertility rate dropped from 3.71 children per woman in the late 1950s to 1.79 in the late 1970s. The fertility rate increased a little during the 1980s and 1990s, but it remains below the "replacement rate" of 2.1. (The replacement rate is higher than 2.0 to account for children who die in infancy.)

Politicians generally don't mention these numbers in Social Security speeches, probably because doing so would come very close to critiquing the lifestyle choices of millions of registered voters. But this lack of attention to root causes also means inattention to potential fixes.

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One potential fix: In a Washington Post column last month Phillip Longman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, called for reducing payroll taxes for parents of children under 18 and eliminating them totally for parents of three minors-without lowering the parents' future benefits. While this would drain money from Social Security in the short run, over the long haul it would help "provide the system with essential human capital" by creating a big incentive for fertility.

In another example, sociologist James Q. Wilson proposes creating special scholarships for women who stay home to raise children, for use at universities after their children are grown. But at least so far, such pro-natal ideas have not been part of the reform debate on Capitol Hill.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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