Children and Childlessness

Shannon Love over at Chicago Boyz has written a piece on the economic consequenses of the growing numbers of childless adults. She argues that such adults are economic free-riders, since they benefit from society while doing nothing to perpetuate that society. This is not a moral judgement per se, as it does not consider whether such adults are childless by choice; not only are marriages occurring later and later in the West, but fertility seems to be lower in industrialized societies. But there can be no doubt that growing numbers of people have decided to remain childless, for reasons of personal convenience, rational economic calculation, or ideology.

The economic issue is perhaps the least difficult to address. Love writes:
In the pre-industrial era, children almost always contributed to the economic success of the family directly. Agriculture depended heavily on the labor of children, and children brought further benefits by extending support networks via marriages. In the industrial era, however, children began to contribute less and less while consuming more and more. Nowadays, children usually return very little if any economic benefit to the parents.

Being a parent costs one economically. Although we socialize some cost, such as education, parents pay most of the cost of raising a child. Parents also lose out in non-monetary ways such as in a loss of flexibility in when and where they work. If an individual sets out to maximize his lifetime income, avoiding having children would be step one.
A large part of this situation, I think, is due to child-labor laws, and the associated attitude that children are entitled not to work, and furthermore must not work for a living for fear that it would impact their (often pointless) schooling. My own observations seem to indicate the opposite. A struggling family I know in New York has seven children; at least one of them chose to work "under the table" (i.e. illegally) for businesses in the area starting from when he was twelve. Some of the other sons had their own catering business. Not only did their wages and earnings help pay for essentials, but the work experience has made them all more disciplined and dependable; the eldest son recently graduated college with a degree in business management.

Conversely, those of us who are unused to employment have a terrible work ethic and tend to spend money all the more freely for its being unearned. Additionally, people are waiting longer and longer after reaching legal age to go out and look for empoyment, simply because they can.

We must take steps to correct the present situation, in which children are incredibly expensive leeches for the first twenty years or more. One first step is to dramatically revise the child-labor laws, and to reprogram public attitudes towards honest work. As Thomas Sowell writes:
At one time, child labor laws were used to stop youngsters whose ages had not yet reached double digits from working in exhausting and dangerous factories and mines. Today, they are used to keep big healthy teenagers from handling pieces of paper in air-conditioned offices.
But this only begins to address one point leading to childlessness, the economic cost. Many people have chosen not to have children either because they don't want the hardship, or because they actually oppose childbirth in general. This is a more serious problem, having to do with societal attitudes and principles more than economic concerns. And here, Ms. Love's piece falls short; she does not point out that often, birth rates correlate strongly with the level of religious practice. This is certainly true in the Jewish community:
[The Orthodox] fertility rate is far above the Jewish norm. As against the overall average of 1.86 children per Jewish woman, an informed estimate gives figures ranging upward from 3.3 children in “modern Orthodox” families to 6.6 in Haredi or “ultra-Orthodox” families to a whopping 7.9 in families of Hasidim. These numbers are, of course, difficult to pin down definitively, but anecdotal evidence is compelling. In a single year, according to a nurse at one hospital in the Lakewood, New Jersey area serving a right-wing Orthodox population, 1,700 babies were born to 5,500 local families, yielding a rate of 358 births per thousand women. (The overall American rate is 65 births per thousand women.)
Religious Jews see childbirth as a Divine imperative, and a crucial obligation to the community. We are not alone in that regard:
The more Islamic a country, the higher the birthrate: Iran, Jordan, Lybia, Kuwait and Eritrea double their populations in 20 years or less, up to twice as fast as India.
I have thought for a long time that strong religions are a Darwinian survival trait for societies. Secularism offers few reasons why the perpetuation of a society is worth striving for. Is it any surprise that the "blue" states in the United States are steadily losing congressional seats to the "red" states?

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