Acton Institute Powerblog

The Real Third Rail in Politics

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In this week’s Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse wonders why no one is talking about the Forbidden Topic in the Social Security debate. That taboo subject is the declining birth rate. Jennifer Roback Morse writes that “the collapse in the fertility levels, particularly striking among the most educated women in society, is a contributing factor to the insolvency of our entitlement programs.”

Read the entire commentary here.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Mike Mathea

    Dr. Morse askes the correct question, we do need the concept of fertility to be included in the social security discussion. I would also suggest we consider limiting payments based upon the lack children. Certainly would bring the whole issue inro focus real quickly.

  • Clare Krishan

    Interesting – would adoptive parents get a full credit or could we incorporate a pro-life premium for biological parents who reject abortion as the solution to a crisis pregnancy?

    Would dead-beat dads suffer penalties, and if so who would adjudicate them? Could single parents be awarded the credit for both working AND parenting, considering they shoulder the expenses of retaining a third party (childcare agency) for services rendered?

    As a single parent in Germany, I paid income taxes as a ‘single householder, no children’, since the law required me to wait and reclaim my tax allowance for my son as a rebate after the year expired with no alternate claim on that dependant’s allowance from another taxpayer (presumably his father, if they ever found him).

    Would industries that can be proven to damage the fertility of their workers be subject to social security reimbursements on their behalf (Stress May Increase Early Miscarriage Risk,2933,185610,00.html)?

    Would the DOD reimburse veterans’ widows for lost social security credits when the pater familiar fails to return from his third or fourth tour as a reservist to raise missing brothers and sisters?

    Would businesses that record the fertility of their female workers in China to ensure the state can enforce its one-child policy be banned from trading here? If not, why not?

    Indeed this idea has legs…
    It could certainly get folks to begin to treasure life as the precious gift it is and cast their political and personal choices in a more wholesome vein than that we see practised at present.

  • Irving H. Bennett N.

    I agree that having many children is good and being good parents is essential to this. But the solution to the Social Security mess is doing away with it. One of its principle flaws is having the next generation paying for the present generations benefits. Longgevity is another weak area. But the worst is the statism behind the whole scam.

  • Tony Davies

    I am an Australian. Recently the Federal Government introduced financial incentives for families to have children. While the effectiveness of its measures will not be known for some time, it at least reflects an awareness of the need to encourage higher levels of fertility.

    Countries such as the United States and Australia have not yet suffered the significant population decline of Europe. Australia’s replacement rate is about 1.8 percent per fertile woman.

    In modern societies a family (ie one wage earner, a potentially non wage earning parent plus children) constitute an economic cost.

    In pre-modern societies families were confronted by two key factors which made high fertility important:

    – high mortality rates among infants
    – children were often economic contributers to the family

    Today we face a different situation.

    – Women have greater life options especially if highly educated and therefore defer having children. (In fairness this is also a consideration for men pursuing careers);

    – The decision to have children imposes an economic cost on parents.

    I am not belittling that love was an important factor in the decision to have children in both pre-modern and modern socities. But in a sense the decision to have children in modern socities flies in the face of many dissuasive factors. Government tax and social policies are among them.

    In Europe there is even debate about what constitutes a family (the various possible models are rendering the term meaningless).

    Countries such as Spain and Italy are effectively commiting national extinction (or at least they will change their fundamental European genetic character). Spain has compounded its problems by endorsing homosexual unions, thus placing such arrangements on the same basis as heterosexual relationships ( the historical basis of families). This at a time when Spain is effectively halving its population in each generation.

    There is no easy solution. But clearly Governments must stop their anti-family social experiments and look towards implementing measures which, at the least, do not impede anything which would encourage potential parents (heterosexual) to do to what is needed create and support a family.

    Ironically, in the middle of debates about what constitutes a family a recent European Conference of government Ministers recognised the need to consider the role of men as fathers in the family. It seems that the idea of men and women combining in the whole process has not yet been quite abolished. Maybe Europe has a ray of hope.

  • Steve Daskal

    Problem #1 — social security is a welfare scheme masquerading as a retiree pension plan. Near-term, it needs to be 100%% taxable AND needs tested. Mid-term it needs to be abolished in favor of mandatory fixed rate monthly contributions to diversified, professionally-managed IRAs or annuities.

    Government should not be in the business of social engineering. It should neither subsidize nor penalize marriage, childbearing, or chastity. Our demographic problems can be solved by changing immigration policies: 1) Pass a Constitutional Amendment making English the sole official language of gov’t (except for necessary national security/law enforcement activities); 2) Offer 1-time resident alien (green card) entry for 7 years to all people with a clean health/criminal record, commitment to work, learn English, and seek naturalization. If they are not in the naturalization process at the end of 7 years, they leave. All aliens must check in monthly and update domicile/employment/sponsor data online or by phone. America doesn’t need "guest-workers," it needs immigrants who wish to become Americans.


  • A citizen

    I do not think that the solution to the set of problems facing the US and the world more broadly is a constantly increasing population. That is mathematically unsustainable in the long run. Assuming a growth rate as low as 1%% will have world population reach 100B (!!) in a bit over 200 years. No technology improvement will make that sustainable.

  • Tom Jordan

    Dr. Morse addresses one of the big elephants in the room nobody wants to talk about. I wonder what impact the abortion culture has had on these economic premises.

  • Clare Krishan

    Indeed Tom Jordan! Another interesting paper linked to over at Mirror of Justice “Should Bearing the Child Mean Bearing All the Cost? A Catholic Perspective on the Sacrifice of Motherhood and the Common Good” seems to articulate that free market pricing of goods (children) doesn’t work for a dependency culture, quoting “Mary Ann Glendon (who) reminded the United Nations just last
    month that:
    three-quarters of the world’s poverty population today is composed of women and
    children. In the developing world, hundreds of millions of women and children lack adequate nutrition, sanitation and basic health care. And even in affluent societies, the faces of the poor are predominantly those of women and children, for . . . [t]here is a strong correlation between family breakdown and the feminization of poverty. The costs of rapid increases in divorce and single-parenthood have fallen heavily on women, and most heavily of all on those women who have made personal sacrifices to care for
    children and other family members.”

  • GAlbert

    Strange how though the article purports "Public policies to encourage women to have more children are considered unacceptable infringements on women’s freedom," plans are afoot to force women to do just this. With the shame being heaped upon abortion patients and doctors, even those of us who advocate "a woman’s right to choose" are afraid to publicly admit such advocacy for fear we will be labeled baby killers. I find it odd therefore, that those who care so much for the UNBORN, cease to care about these same children when they become living, breathing individuals — greatly in need of love, education, food, clothing and shelter. So, we champion the rights of those who have yet to be born, and shaft those whose mortality cannot for a moment be questioned? Another thing, I believe the word feminism has been so very twisted that its true meaning has become lost amid a myriad of translations. The most people think of feminism these days as that feminists are lesbians. Totally untrue! And this article’s claim that "Feminism taught us to believe that no self-respecting educated woman should be caught dead changing diapers," is false as well. The word feminism — in Webster’s — means "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes;" "organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests." Is there something wrong with women being concerned about issues that concern women — particularly since we can’t expect men to be concerned?