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It's Not Just Parents Who Benefit from Child Allowances
The fertility gap and vanishing aunts, uncles, and cousins
Today, I’m talking about how the benefits of children spill out of their immediate family. And on Thursday, I’ll be sharing highlights from your thoughts on how to measure differences between men and women.
If you’re attending Notre Dame’s conference on human dignity this week, I’ll be part of a panel with Erika Bachiochi and Abigail Favale on “The Dignity of the Sexed Body: Asymmetry, Equality, and Real Reproductive Justice.”
The most persuasive evidence that the United States has a fertility problem isn’t the total fertility rate; it’s the gap between the number of children women say they want to have and how many we do have.
If it were just that people were having fewer children, that might be a reflection of their goals (and the problems for population stability might be best addressed through immigration, etc.). But, instead, women report in measure after measure that they want more children on average. The desire is already there, but achieving it feels impossible.
And that’s only the desired fertility gap that we survey. There are other people who feel crestfallen when it’s hard to have a bigger family. As Mary Kate Skehan wrote for IFS, one of the blessings of more children comes in the second generation, when siblings become aunts and uncles.
It’s probably important to note that I’m unmarried and childless. While I have plenty to offer my nieces and nephews—stories, candy, Go Fish—they fill important needs for me, too: silliness, joy, a child’s easy affection. They challenge me to be patient because of their demands to dress and eat and wash “by myself,” with superhuman inefficiency. They require me to set a good example because their ears are hyper-alert for swears. They confront my embarrassment in the face of dependence because everyone wears diapers at some point. By their very existence, they prompt me to be forward-looking and self-forgetting. They get the first plate, take the first turn, and are the most beautiful people in any room.
The personal enrichment I receive from my nieces and nephews feels to me so significant, in fact, that when I see downward-trending line graphs and worrying scatter charts on fertility on this blog and in other outlets, it occurs to me to wonder not just about would-be parents, but would-be aunts and uncles, too. A birthrate of 1.6 children in this generation means that in the next, aunts and uncles will be as rare and precious as siblings are now. Aunts like mine, and like me, could become an endangered species.
We don’t need a chart to see that a reduction in family size reduces the number of siblings, but the fact that the number of parents and grandparents is stable may distract us from the collapse in the number of aunts/uncles and cousins. For example, when average family size falls from four to three, each person loses a sibling, of course, but he or she also loses four aunts and uncles and twelve cousins. The collapse to one child wipes out the siblings, but it also wipes out the aunts/uncles and cousins.
None of this is to say that your brothers and sisters are now entitled to pester you about children the way perhaps your parents already do. But I do think we imagine the benefit of more children too narrowly. Programs like parental leave and child allowances are positioned as primarily a gift to parents, but it’s not just the nuclear family that is enriched by the birth of a child.
Children demand more than two parents can live up to on their own. So they necessarily touch other people and other families. Being asked to babysit a friend’s two-year-old for a weekend turned out to be a big gift to me—it made the demands of parenting concrete, not frighteningly abstract, and I realized I was grown up enough for it.
(That same kid is a walking pro-natalist intervention. One of my college friends said he moved up his timeline by six months every time he spent time with N___, the first of our cohort to have kids, and he’s now got two and counting.)
When we lost children through miscarriage, I knew that our children left a gap in other people’s lives, even if not everyone affected was aware that they were touched by their absence. A particular baby would have been a playmate for one child we knew, while the first baby I was able to hold is instead small enough to be hoisted (under protest) by a child who might have been a peer for her bigger brother or sister.
Sometimes the pitch for a child allowance is an appeal to a universal fairness—everyone benefits, whether or not you have a child, because everyone once was a child. And I think that’s a fair pitch.
But everyone benefits as a grown-up, because children are leaven for a community. Their naked need and forthrightness creates ties (familial and otherwise) that we grown-ups would neglect.