When and why did it become necessary to pay Americans to have children?

Here’s something Hillary Clinton said in the October 13, 2015 Democratic Presidential debate:

I remember as a young mother, you know, having a baby wake up who was sick and I’m supposed to be in court, because I was practicing law. I know what it’s like. And I think we need to recognize the incredible challenges that so many parents face, particularly working moms. (Clinton)

All of the Democrats agreed that Americans should be compensated for the burden of parenthood, e.g., with “family and parental leave to all of our families.” (Sanders; see also this posting on who should pay for said leave) And given the array of subsidies for parents already in place it seems that there is political consensus around the idea of paying Americans to reproduce.

My question for today is when and why this became necessary. At the time of the nation’s birth parents did not get any federal tax credits for having children. There was no income tax (the Sixteenth Amendment was passed in 1913). Parents also had to educate children themselves or pay a private school (Wikipedia says that it wasn’t until 1870 that “all states had free elementary schools.”). Real incomes were much lower than today. There were no disposable diapers, dishwashers, or washing machines. Yet “the average woman had over seven livebirths in 1800” (NBER). Suppose that five of those children survived through age 18. Is it truly the case that going to work in an air-conditioned office in 2015 and coming home to meet two children who have returned from their government-provided K-12 class and after-school program is actually “an incredible challenge” compared to doing home-based work while dealing with five children circa 1800?

[Separately, the candidates who showed up to the debate were apparently all in agreement that the way to alleviate the “incredible challenge” of dealing with a couple of kids is to pay mothers to stay home for three months following a child’s birth. Does that make sense? What about the remaining 17.75 years of supposedly “incredible challenge”? If I sit on a Carnival cruise ship for three months doing nothing am I then ready to face an “incredible challenge” for 17.75 years? As noted toward the end of my maternity leave posting, it seems as though it would be better to take all of the benefits given to parents (except for K-12 schooling) and load them into the 0-5 period. But even then I am not sure why extra benefits during the first three months will make all the difference.]

What do readers think? Compared to the days in which Americans were having kids without being paid, we have disposable diapers, a river of inexpensive imported clothing and shoes, home appliances, electric lights, take-out food on almost everyone’s way home from work, taxpayer-funded babysitting from age 5-18 (a.k.a. “K-12”), mostly taxpayer-funded babysitting from age 18-22 (a.k.a. “kollege”). Why is it that American parents bellyache about how tough it is and how they need to be subsidized by childless Americans?

15 thoughts on “When and why did it become necessary to pay Americans to have children?

  1. There’s a number of factors which spring to mind:

    1) The two-income trap: both parents “have to” work these days in order to be able to afford to live in neighborhoods with good schools to raise their children because both parents are working because….
    2) Like it or not, increasingly large percentages of children are born to single mothers who probably would like to have a least a few months of bonding time with their child(ren) before handing them over to other caretakers.
    3) Lots of people’s careers seem to be taking over an increasingly large percentage of their mental bandwith (seriously, you often seem to imply in your blog that Americans are lazy and need to work harder relative to people in Asian countries, so don’t be surprised when those Americans who heed this call and work 80-100 hour weeks find the idea of having kids challenging).

  2. Once upon a time, people had kids because kids provided economic utility: they worked. They would be put to work in the fields, in particular, and kids were also a form of old age insurance. Those utilities are largely unnecessary now, thus, new forms of incentives. That’s one argument, anyway.

    [Edited by moderator in accordance with http://philip.greenspun.com/blog/comment-moderation-policy/ ]

  3. To reiterate and add onto Alex’s points:

    1.) One of the outcomes of the new divorce system has been a destruction of existing families and a reduction in the formation of new families. Thus, there are many new single moms out there.
    2.) Unfortunately, society also has an aversion to allowing women to suffer the natural consequences of their own choices. You can see this, for example, in the lighter prison sentences women receive for committing the same crime as their male counterparts. Society has a much lower tolerance for female suffering than male suffering. Obviously if you choose to be a single mom then you’re going to have difficulties over an intact family, but women tend to have a hard time stomaching the loss of social status and lifestyle. They then go running to the taxpayers for a handout, who are happy to help the “poor women and children”.
    3.) Before child labor laws, children could be expected to contribute to their own sustenance, whether on the farm, in helping raise their siblings, or even in a factory. Today, both legally and culturally, these are now for the most part considered taboo.
    4.) Social security and cultural changes have created a situation where grandparents no longer live with their children, thus less freely available childcare is available. Parents these days often have to default to a market solution.

  4. Where to start. Differences between being 7 years old in Long Beach, CA in 1956 and 7 years old now:

    Then: Kids ran around the whole block playing army, except for one weird guy who yelled at us when we were on his lawn.
    Now: Kids not allowed on anybody’s lawn except for one weird guy who doesn’t mind.

    Then: Free Archery, Hot Dog Roasts, and sports at schoolyard. Balls checked out by one old guy everybody called coach.
    Now: Day care run by middle aged women who encourage kids to play video games. Day care – $8.00/hour. Schoolyards locked unless kids in day care.

    Then: Kids walked or biked everywhere.
    Now: Streets and traffic too dangerous to bike on. Bike lanes built for sports bikes, not kids.

    Then: Kids could spend 2 hours in library.
    Now: Librarians call social services.

    It goes on. Basically, those chain emails about then and now are actually true when it comes to childhood. My childhood was idyllic but that America is gone.

  5. HC is talking about her attitude 30 years ago. She was part of a newly feminized generation that regarded motherhood as demeaning, and less fulfilling than shuffling legal papers for a law firm.

  6. That paper is about how Americans started having fewer babies extremely early on compared to other Western nations. So you’re talking about an old problem.

  7. Having babies – another job that Americans won’t do. Actually, most Western(ized) nations seem to have extremely low birthrates nowadays, but it’s no problem because the population of Africa is skyrocketing and there are plenty of refugees from the Middle East to move in. I’m sure that replacing Europeans with Middle Eastern Muslims and Africans will turn out great for every country that tries it.

  8. My question for today is when and why this became necessary

    1. When children began being consumer goods and stopped being producers, as they were on farms (Bryan Caplan’s *Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids* and *All Joy and No Fun: The Paradoxes of Modern Parenthood* are good on this).

    2. When birth control made parenthood more an option than a natural life path.

    3. When housing and schooling became absurdly expensive, per Matt Yglesias in The Rent is Too Damn High.

    In short, economic and political changes have made this if not necessary, exactly, then at least a lot more popular.

  9. People today are catering to their selfish nature, which is at the core of the problems stated in previous posts.

  10. I think more options for women deserves a lot of consideration here. Comparing 1800 to 1900 to now, I see that women have a lot more options.

    Only in the 1800s was coverture abolished; before that a married woman had very few legal rights, on the theory that her husband subsumed her legal existence. She couldn’t own property, contract, or collect a salary.

    Well in to the 1900s, marital rape was legal. What is a fertile woman to do if her husband wants to rape her?

    Later in the 20th century, legal and safe abortion, as well as female controlled birth control (the pill), gives women even more ways to avoid having lots of children.

    It makes a lot of sense to me that people who have ten options will often make different choices than their ancestors who had so very few.

  11. Phil,

    Our world (America) is filled with consumers and there is boatload of important stuff that most people think must be consumed. In order to fulfill these desires, kids are not an option. Ever. They just consume themselves!
    When we do have kids we immediately expect “help” with nearly every aspect of their lives. Why? So we can get back to consuming.
    It’s about selfishness and self-fulfillment and nothing more elegant. We don’t need kids anymore, so if they do pop up, hey, WE NEED HELP.
    My father was one of eight who worked in the fields. My mother was one of five who ran a small store. I was an only child. The reasoning is clear.
    Times have (sadly) changed.

  12. I don’t understand it either. I realize these days there is a two-income trap if you want to believe it (http://www.today.com/money/why-middle-class-mothers-fathers-are-going-broke-2D80554991). This is a plausible argument, but it also begs the question: whatever happened to delayed gratification these days? It’s a matter of managing expectations, and living within your means. Americans are far too spoiled today. What I don’t understand is the complaint about having to pay for 1) mortgage 2) car payments (SUVs) 3) cell phone 4) cable tv 5) starbucks/eating out etc… For sure, cities are expensive, but out in midwest? What about renting a cheaper place, buying used cars, going for the prepaid cell phone plan, cutting the cable, and making your meals at home? Women I think are even more guilty of being consumers than men. Men tend to buy the bigger ticket items but in general are more frugal on day-to-day purchases. Women, on the other hand, tend to fritter away the money on lots of knick-knacks/decorations/clothes/shoes/expensive organic crap/shopping-as-therapy/etc. Look around you, every store caters the majority of its items to who? To women. The irony is that the average women out there will talk about protecting the environment/kids/animals/humans/what-have-you and yet they are the main drivers of all the consumption that is going on around us. On top of that the vast majority of them want children, and then the consumption continues.

  13. One of the worst diseases of American politics is a lack of understanding on both the left and right as to what happened when women enter the workforce.

    When a women works at home, her labor helps the family but is NOT taxed and DOES NOT make a billionaire rich anywhere. Also the labor does not show up in the GDP calculation.

    Women in the conventional workforce pay taxes and make billionaires rich (by the mechanism so well described by Karl Marx.)

    Anyhow, once a family becomes dependent on having two incomes and once people have student loans, a mortgage, etc. they have doubled their chance of going bankrupt since now either one can lose their job and cause the family to go bankrupt.

    It is hard to “opt out” of the system (either by having one worker or by saving half your money because you are competing for housing and all the other positional goods with people who “opt in”.)

    This change, together with other changes in the economy, has made life much more precarious for families, so people definitely don’t feel safe having children. For all the talk about “saving for college” there is such a sense of unreality since the price increases are so high, like healthcare, that you’d expect an elite education to cost $700,000 a year when a child born today becomes of age…

    (And that is where the “delayed gratification” is involved as a theme — in a world where corporate leaders are thinking only of how to goose the numbers to hit their earning targets for the next quarter, people don’t have any story that makes sense about how to have a career or have retirement savings, etc.)

  14. Wrote Phil: […] “given the array of subsidies for parents already in place it seems that there is political consensus around the idea of paying Americans to reproduce.” [emphasis mine]

    I can’t comment on the alleged national and/or bipartisan dimension of childbearing, simply because I see it as part of a global, hence neither uniquely nor specifically American, changing trend in these survival of the fattest hunger games. In short: it used to be that own children were the only insurance parents had to survive when no longer able to fend for themselves yet still healthy enough to hang on. But that “traditional” rôle has changed enough in the last few generations (I’m not writing any years because they’d vary both within and at large in populations). Thus, in tact with higher standards of living; better work and care prospects for the elderly; institutions and states (read: prevailing mentality) shifting most of that burden onto salaried carers; the need for bigger families (which ensured that at least some of the offspring would make it to maturity) has evaporated.

    It wasn’t that old ago that there were West European families with double-digit children numbers… because the parents didn’t know better, the church said no to contraceptives, and, besides, as long as one could feed them—and one could—children meant long-term security (this affects even today’s women who can’t conceive themselves—ask Mia Farrow). And it is, clearly, a contradiction in terms, that poor people, those who least can afford large broods, do so nevertheless, while the prosperous individuals find better things to do (this directly contradicts Phil’s oft-unstated belief that conceiving, gestating, and bringing up children is some kind of, if occasionally “well paid,” piece of cake).

    Nowhere is this conundrum illustrated better than in Hans Rosling’s 2014 “Statistics of the future” lecture (he’s an M.D. with Médecins Sans Frontieres experience, who turned to statistical sciences, TED sword-swallowing performances, and whose visualization software was acquired by and incorporated into Google). Invest 59 minutes in watching this entertaining talk with son et lumière, and all these childbearing/ world health development trends and dilemmas will become Alles Klaar! to you.

    To come back for a moment to Phil’s direct question “when and why did it become necessary to pay Americans to have children?” – the necessity, if that’s the word, arose gradually since the “happy 50s” in Levittowns all over America, and has everything to do with the falling total fertility rates: some ways had to be found to reward the labour of women bringing up future Americans for the well being of the nation (of course, this being the USA, a continent of values, it was implemented unevenly, haphazardly, and more on the surface than in depth). When Phil asks it, I want to answer with a question: “what alternatives to that do you foresee?” … that men/ prospective fathers will first take THE PLEDGE, then uniformly live up to its letter of “The Male Is The Provider for His Family?” Assuming that’s not on the table, who is going to nurture father-provider-less children when their mothers have to work just to survive? (it does actually take a village to successfully bring up children).

    Just what century’s values do you have in mind – you know as well as I do, that today’s American family laws already treat the “accidental” male “co-contributors” to the important goals of national procreation as effectively peons indentured to the other “co-contributors” until their mutual offspring reaches adulthood at 18 or 21 years of age (though they dress it in another verbiage). In a somewhat S-F scenario, the not-going-to-be-cheated-into-fatherhood great-gene males deny their sperm to the females, who then have to turn to commercial, anonymous sperm banks for the service. And to the state for the necessary child support, or else the future generations of the Americans all razghavarit español.

    I don’t fancy to be repeating myself, so here I repost part of my reply given elsewhere a few weeks ago in the context of (just yesterday repudiated) China’s One Child Policy (the other person praised it), perhaps it can serve as a mirror to the Occidental dilemma as well.

    You’ve got the correlation upside down. The rise in 3rd World living standards is not due to a smaller number of children, or mandated sole one, per family, but that the steadily rising opportunities to earn a living, and general welfare, in itself a consequence of lengthy period of peace, have led to lower fertility rates. Large broods are any poor parents’ sole insurance against starving in old age, so when the state quits fighting for survival, evolves, starts to assume some of those responsibilities, and provides the wives alternatives to hausfrauery, the average number of births per woman goes down.

    Observe that the Chinese OCP (…) was instigated at a time when the country was in economic doldrums, and means had to be found to halt the accelerating demographic projections. It was never as rigid as commonly assumed, and has now been relaxed, yet the Chinese women have not started producing babies in any higher numbers. Because they can envision growing old without having to beg for food in the streets.

    [FTR the full comment.]

    BONUS: you’ve read this far, so here’s what was supposed to be the #16th comment in the “what do we do with disgraced academics” thread here before it was recently closed.

Comments are closed.