Up until around 2008, the United States stood out among wealthy nations for its high birth rate. Unlike the Europeans, the East Asians, and even most nations in Latin America, the US was producing enough children to keep its population from falling, and given strong immigration our population was actually rising. Then came the Great Recession, and something changed. Birth rates usually fall in recessions, so nobody was alarmed at first, but then the economy came roaring back the birth rate did not. In fact total fertility has continued to decline ever since and is now around 1.7. If our birth rate had held steady at the 2008 rate, there would now be 5.8 million more children in the US.
Of course people do not agree on how to feel about those 5.8 million missing children. Environmentalists generally cheer; libertarians say, "who cares, it's none of our business how many people decide to have." But others are worried. The number of children that women say they want to have has held stead at around 2.5, so the declining birth rate represents another way our lives are falling short of what we want them to be. There are plenty of mainstream liberals, feminists, and so on who decry this and think we need stronger government action to support parenthood. What is government for if not to help us live the lives we want?
Plus there are the racists and the immigration skeptics who see that with the native born population falling and many immigrants coming from Asia and Africa, the white population is going to fall in both real and percentage terms. Some of the anxiety driving the "we will not be replaced" rhetoric on the right comes from these statistics.
But there is no ethnic group in the US that is currently reproducing itself at the replacement rate. Native born blacks are very close to whites, and native born Hispanics are just a shade higher. African and Hispanic immigrants do have higher birth rates, but the difference disappears in a single generation. The one group that falls any real distance from the norm is American Indians, whose total fertility is around 1.3.
Other conservatives, especially but not only religious conservatives, mourn the decline because they just like families and babies and think people are better off raising children than whatever it is childless yuppies get up to in New York and Dallas.
Enter Mitt Romney. Still in his heart a business consultant, he has a Plan, complete with a detailed PowerPoint that he carries everywhere on the iPad in his briefcase and will show to anyone who asks:
Romney's office rolled out a big proposal to reform the current hodgepodge of programs that help parents, the mix of tax credits and welfare benefits, by rolling them into a single family benefit that would provide $350 a month for kids 5 and under, and $250 a month for kids up to 17, up to a certain income level and benefit cap. (The cap effectively discriminates against large families, which means Romney can’t be accused of Latter-day Saint self-dealing.)
In keeping with the opportunity described above, the Romney plan offers something to left and right alike. It would significantly reduce child poverty, a core left-wing ambition. At the same time it reduces the current system’s penalties for marriage and its tacit bias against stay-at-home parents, both social-conservative goals, and raises the current subsidy for middle-class families, usually a Republican-leaning constituency. Finally, it’s both deficit neutral and softly pro-life, with a benefit that starts while the child is still in utero.
Since Romney is about the only person in the Senate who cares about the deficit, the plan pays for itself. The two big sources of funding are phasing out a long list of current programs and tax credits and ending the deduction for state and local taxes. Neither is likely to be popular with Democrats.
Many conservatives will object to softening the work rules enacted in the 1996 welfare reform, which both Republican politicians and many economists think helped to promote work and reduce poverty, plus ending the deduction for state and local taxes without cutting tax rates amounts to tax hike.
I would not really be opposed to any of this, but I doubt very much that it will work. Romney's plan is still less generous than what Denmark and the Netherlands provide and their birth rates are lower than in the US. It is the basic structure of our economy and society, especially the two-career marriage, that is driving birthrates down, and nobody wants to mess with that.