This One Weird Trick Can Solve the Fertility Crisis

But older voters and a lack of political will mean that we probably won't get it done

Fertility rates are all the rage these days.

Japan and South Korea to France and the US, it seems like nearly everyone who has seen fertility rate trends has an opinion.

And with good reason! Declining fertility rates have spelled doom for great powers including the Roman Empire, and pose significant threats for current governments.

Declining fertility rates can cause businesses to move jobs to countries with growing populations, increase strain on welfare programs, and drive erratic government behavior that includes the rise of hyper-nationalistic movements and the waging of war.

In the United States, the solvency of the Social Security Administration is directly dependent on birth rates remaining above replacement level (read: more than 2 children per woman). And the fact that our fertility rate is closer to 1.5 children per women means that it is very likely that my generation—or maybe the generation of my children—likely won’t collect a single Social Security check in our retirements.

So what are we to do?

From the times of Julius Caesar, much of the discussion around fertility rates is centered around what the state can do to incentivize childbirth.

France gives tax breaks to large families. Norway provides an entire year of paid parental leave. Hungary gives a bevy of generous incentives for young couples to get married and get procreating.

But these natalist policies rarely work—and when they do, they cost far more than they earn for a country and its people. In Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes:

Countries from Russia to Japan to Italy have tried an array of measures—from pressure campaigns to subsidized child care to giving people days off work for making babies—to raise national birthrates. Yet fertility rates remain stable or continue to fall. Over and over again, officials have demonstrated that government-led efforts to induce higher fertility produce weak results at best, and frequently fail entirely, often at high public cost.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, “Storks Don’t Take Orders From the State”

When fertility rates are in decline and government family policy having an incredibly small impact on couples’ desire to have children, how do we as a society pull ourselves back from the brink?

There is a simple, yet unfulfilling answer: we let the market work.

This can mean many things, including allowing for more immigration of working age populations, to eliminating government policies that warp incentives and motivate people away from marriage.

But one of the most important—and most underappreciated—steps that a government can take to address the fertility crisis is to let developers build more housing.

Housing? How?

Demographer and pro-natalist Lyman Stone recently shared this illuminating chart on Twitter.

You can see this trend exists across cultures and across decades. And some rough napkin math shows that of the represented couples, those who don’t live with their parents have on average two and a half times the amount of children as those who do live with their parents.

That’s a huge difference!

Doing some insanely rough math based on data from the Census, Pew, and Gallup, if you could wave a magic wand and have every young married couple in the US living with parents instead live on their own, the new fertility rate could be as high as 2.3—well above replacement rate! Now, that’s a very liberal estimate. But even if we cut the impact in half, we still get very close to replacement rate.

In short, the current housing crisis is in and of itself a fertility crisis. If young Americans cannot afford to live on their own, they likely cannot afford to have children. No government policy or tax scheme can offset that very harsh reality.

To address the fertility crisis, we need to build more housing—a lot more housing.

The political barriers in the way

That all sounds fine and dandy. But how do we actually do this?

The bad news is that we probably can’t. To make housing so affordable that every married couple can afford to move out on their own would likely require the political will to build a massive amount of housing and significantly increase density in urban (and some suburban) corridors.

But there is a massive, active voting bloc that simply won’t let that happen: older voters. Whether they are Baby Boomers or Gen Xers, older voters are more likely to shy away from change.

This causes them to harbor two strong, yet diametrically opposed policy positions. On one hand, they ardently wish to safeguard Social Security, a benefit they've rightfully earned for their twilight years. But on the other hand, they often vehemently oppose new housing projects.

The irony is palpable: older voters demand the continuation of a system reliant on the younger workforce, all the while supporting policies that indirectly threaten its longevity.

In San Francisco, a hotbed for affordable housing fights, polling shows that older voters are less than half as supportive of new housing developments as the broader population. Another poll from the Bay Area News Group showed that voters aged 50+ are nearly one and a half times more likely to oppose new housing as voters aged 34 and under:

There exists a clear choice for those concerned about the future of Social Security and other entitlements yet resistant to new housing: either continue to limit housing supply, reaping immediate benefits while jeopardizing future generations' ability to afford homes and start families, or embrace change and support increased housing development.

The latter not only aids in keeping entitlement programs like Social Security solvent but also fosters a healthier society where each generation can affordably lay down roots and contribute to the common good.

That’s the choice. You have to pick one, and soon—before it’s too late for your kids to start a family of their own.

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