Commentary Magazine

Birth Dearth

To the Editor:

Noting some of the factors that have hindered fertility in the modern world, Eric Cohen writes: “Children are no longer economic assets, as they generally were in rural and industrial societies; rather, they are economic burdens, voracious consumers who produce virtually nothing until their late teens or early twenties” [“Why Have Children?,” June]. Well said, although parents who have had to support children through college and graduate school might add that the period of production-free consumption sometimes extends into the early thirties.

This points to an interesting fact about child-rearing in our day—that it has become a much more costly and time-consuming job than it ever used to be. Children in the middle-class neighborhood in which I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s had a great deal of autonomy from their parents. The costs of higher education had not yet blasted off to the stratosphere. Today, besides the hugely increased costs of education (especially for those who choose to enroll their children in private schools from the outset), there is soccer practice to drive to, plays and debates to attend, activities and friends to monitor, and ambitions endlessly to nourish. These are burdens that even non-neurotic parents take up because they know that they are the best way to see their children through to success.

To put it in crude terms, the sheer cost of parenting in dollars and cents and physical effort is so high that it often deters otherwise eager parents from having more children. Mr. Cohen is certainly right that “we need a persuasive, humanistic answer to the question, ‘Why have children?’” But in this respect we are up against the very structure and rhythm of modern life.

Thus, it is also important to have the right policies in place to encourage child-bearing. One such policy is school vouchers. I cannot count the times I have heard from neighbors and fellow parishioners that the chief barrier to their having a larger family is the cost of private-school tuition. Vouchers are a good idea in their own right, and they might enable parents of limited means to have the extra child they want but fear they cannot afford.

Lynne McFadden

Indianapolis, Indiana


To the Editor:

Eric Cohen’s poignant article describes a problem in the West—an ongoing “birth dearth”—that is dangerous for society as a whole and tragic for the people who comprise it. In discussing why people in the developed world are having fewer children, well below the 2.1 per couple necessary for population replacement, Mr. Cohen touches on the issue of selfishness or individualism, but does not present them as primary factors.

In the early 1970’s, when the American Jewish community awoke to its own population crisis, Donald Feldstein, a lay leader, questioned the prevailing view that the biggest deterrent to large families was finances. He argued, somewhat counterintuitively, that money itself seems to be a powerful contraceptive. After all, it is the world’s poor who have the most children, and the financially well off who have the fewest. Indeed, some social scientists have said that the way to solve the population explosion in third-world countries is to raise people to the middle classes—where, once they arrive, they will have too many other needs to fill to think about so many children!

Feldstein went on to promulgate a “law” by which perceived needs and expectations rise geometrically with arithmetic rises in income. A corollary is, “All my life I have been within a few thousand dollars of having all I need.” (Today the figure would have to be amended to a few hundred thousand dollars—or more.)

Having a large family may have something to do with money but probably not that much. Ultimately, it has to do with priorities. Are children the first priority? Does giving our children siblings and cousins and a large extended family rank high on our ladder of values, or are consumption and consumerism to be the decisive realities of our lives? The health of our society, the meaningfulness of our lives, and—for Jews—their existence as a people, may very well depend on the priorities people choose.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein

Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun

New York City


Eric Cohen writes:

I thank Lynne McFadden and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein for their thoughtful letters. Both raise a crucial question about the relationship between wealth and family size: why do wealthy people have fewer children, and is the lack of wealth (or the pursuit of it) a reason not to have more children?

It is impossible to deny that children are expensive. It is also impossible to deny that our modern luxuries come to feel like necessities, including the luxury of freedom that children necessarily interrupt. Perhaps the deepest problem is that modern parents think about their children in the same way they think about themselves: as seekers of opportunity. This means that many people wait to have children until they can give the not-yet-born every tool for success, or until they have attained it for themselves.

Promoting school vouchers in the name of being pro-natalism, as Lynne McFadden proposes, seems like a very wise idea, one whose appeal may only grow as society ages and the need for children becomes more apparent. But in the end, Rabbi Lookstein is right: culture matters most, not economics or policy. If they believe that life is the most important gift they can give the young, then modern men and women will find a way to get by economically, even with very large families. Surely this is much easier to do in those cultures—like the Orthodox Jewish world—that place a divine value on procreation and that organize their community life to nurture the young. But even for the rest of us, raising more than one or two children is not impossible, just hard.

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