Can Governments Increase Family Size?

Many Catholic commentators urge governments to economically incentivize childbearing. However, the early returns on such incentives disappoint.

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All over the European and North American continents, birth rates have utterly collapsed. Low birth rates have garnered much attention among journalists and politicians. They have pointed out that those birth rates threaten the stability of welfare states, among other things. For, as time goes on, governments have fewer and fewer tax payers and more and more dependents and beneficiaries. 

The most commonly presented reason for these low birth rates is the cost of having children. Consequently, some commentators (among Catholics, often associated with the integralist movement) have urged governments to adopt measures that economically incentivize childbearing. Some Eastern European states, notably Hungary, have done just that. 

The early returns on the Magyar initiatives disappoint, however; for birth rates have increased, but only a little. There is little reason to believe that other countries might have better results. Child tax credits in the United States did not result in a baby boom—or what might now qualify as one.

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The Magyar experience was predictable, since wealth is not the only concern when couples have children. Indeed, couples must have babies before their income-generating possibilities can be at their greatest. In the past, desperately poor couples had large families, whether they lived in rural villages or the early industrial towns of the nineteenth century. Child-rearing does, indeed, cost money, but educations need not be expensive. Costs can be kept down either through public school education or homeschooling. 

In those countries where the birth rate is lowest, national health services cover medical costs. In Europe, at least, the costs of child-rearing amount to housing, food, and clothing—not “big ticket” items. In contrast, large families may still be found principally in the United States, where couples often sacrifice much to pay for education and medical care. As for now, birth rates are highest in the countries where child-rearing is most expensive.

So, something else must be going on. But what?

As the outstanding scholarship of Brad Wilcox and others indicates, some of the collapse in birth rates have what must be called a religious dimension. Every parent knows the difficulties of raising children. Mothers gestate their babies in discomfort and bear them in pain. Parents worry that their child will enjoy good health. Even in stable, contented families parents fret over how to pay the bills, or whether one of the children has contracted a serious illness (which could infect the siblings). 

Newborns cry a lot and often don’t sleep through the night, even though the next workday beckons when morning comes. Parents are often exhausted. Other concerns surface when the children become adolescents. Are they doing well enough in school? Do the children befriend peers that might get them into trouble? Are they keeping themselves safe? 

Mothers and fathers may quarrel over the best decisions for their children. The needs of children require parents to put their children’s best interests before their own. Why should anyone deliberately subject themselves to such a fate, especially now that technology can render sexual intercourse sterile? Couples can get the pleasure without the unpleasant consequences.

Fewer children will be born into a world where suffering—the Cross—has been forgotten or banished or scorned. Modernity, beginning with the Enlightenment writers of the eighteenth century, sneers at the idea that suffering is an integral part of the human condition. They were convinced that the corruption of their era caused its immense suffering. They countered that suffering was avoidable and removable with the implementation of technology and rational social policies.  Fewer children will be born into a world where suffering—the Cross—has been forgotten or banished or scorned. Tweet This

To them, suffering was the consequence of ignorance and foolishness rather than the disposition to sin that Christianity has taught afflicts every human being born into this world, this “vale of tears.” For modernity, a utopia without suffering is possible and attainable, and so it must be desirable. Anyone who thinks otherwise imposes misfortune and pain on others and is an enemy of the good society.

Suffering, of course, is not the only part of the story. Parents also delight in a child’s first words or first steps. They take pride in their children’s musical, artistic, intellectual, athletic, and social accomplishments. They laugh at innocent missteps. They marvel at the good sense their older children demonstrate. They rejoice in a child’s good marriage match and the births of grandchildren (and maybe great-grandchildren too!). Anyone who has experienced these milestones marvels at the joys they bring. 

But these joys come only with the suffering, and so Christianity makes more sense out of child-rearing than does secularism. Indeed, child-rearing is an image of the faith itself. The cross of suffering must be kissed and embraced, and then the joy like unto the Resurrection follows. 

Parenting is an image of the sacrament upon which Catholic couples embark when they pledge their faith and fidelity to each other before God’s own Church. Like Jesus, whose contemporaries called Him “Teacher,” parents are the primary teachers of their children in Catholic belief and behavior. And nothing pleases a teacher as much as a student who has mastered the lesson. These parallel the joys of the Resurrection itself, the reward of fidelity, loyalty, and love. 

My wife and I have just welcomed our first grandchild, a boy, into the world. We thank God that our daughter has such a good man with whom to raise her son. We thank God that the boy appears healthy and contented. And we thank God that we can just marvel at his growth and beauty and that he will be the source of such thrills in the future. We know that God has not even begun to extend his bounty to our family, as we are confident that more grandchildren are to come. 

We are grateful for the grace that enabled us to accept the sufferings that came along with raising our children; for now we experience the splendor of seeing what fine people they have grown into. We delight in another tiny member of our family, whom we hope will be joined in the future with siblings and cousins.

Progressives have been correctly vilified as presenting more government spending as the solution to virtually every social problem in our country, despite the prescient warnings of their own Daniel Patrick Moynihan back in the 1960s. This experience should serve as a cautionary tale to those on the political right who propose similar measures (even if for laudable motivations).

Government can contribute to the flourishing of families. But any legislation must take into account, first, that the family is anterior to government and politics and, second, the diverse motivations and aspirations that move couples to raise children. They need to confront the cultural degradation that provokes suspicion between young men and women unto the discouragement of marriage, that encourages easy and meaningless sexual congress, and that equates the union of husband and wife with other relationships. 


  • Robert Shaffern

    Robert W. Shaffern is a Professor of Medieval History at the University of Scranton and the author of The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-1375.

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