Social Security is not our biggest problem

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, April 9, 2009 16:44 EDT
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One of the few problems I had with Michelle Goldberg’s book The Means of Reproduction is that she indulged the argument that while developing nations need to reduce their population, developed nations need to increase ours, an argument that comes straight from the hyperventilating anti-sex, misogynist hard right. It’s true that it sounds just plausible enough that it’s gotten traction “even with” liberals, but she cites Philip Longman as a source, and while he’s technically a Democrat, he seems to share the hard right’s views on women’s place, it seems, and so there’s no reason to think that he’s not coming from the exact same place.

The red flag in all this is that if developing nations have too many people, but developed nations have too few, the most immediate answer to the question is not to guilt women (or, as Goldberg argues, just makes it really easy for women) into having more children, but just open up the borders to immigration. Neil argues for this solution, if there is in fact a problem, and I concur. It’s paternalistic to say that people don’t actually want to immigrate here, and so while immigration is no substitute for trying to help other countries develop themselves, there’s also no reason for closed borders here if we’re that desperate for people. But of course, that solution defeats the hard right’s purpose in raising this alarm about Social Security and other social welfare programs going underfunded, which is to use that alarm to forward a sexist and racist agenda. Unfortunately, Goldberg picks up the “they can’t assimiliate” baton in her book, even though she acknowledges that the example of non-assimilation that wingnuts resort to—the struggles between Muslim immigrants and native Europeans—stems more from the European countries and their natives resisting the immigrants and ghettoizing them. We don’t have to repeat their mistakes.

But, as I’ve said before, you can tell that the “OMG NO WORKERS” panic is disingenuous for a simple reason: the pro-patriarchy folks who raise this flag want to reduce the current paid workforce by up to 40%, because they have an ideological objection to women working. Goldberg adapts her arguments past that by saying the government owes it to women to make it easier to have children and work, and while I think that’s a great idea, the very people who came up with the panic in the first place will fight her and anyone else who tries to implement that method tooth and nail.

I agree 100% that our society should make it as easy as possible for women to have families and jobs at the same time, but for me, it’s a human rights issue. I think it really is for Goldberg, too, and she sees this supposed underpopulation crisis as a way to get to this final goal, as she knows that a male-dominated government is slow to respond to women’s concerns for their own sake. I have a real problem with this approach. First, there’s so much backlash potential when you pretend to work for goal X but are really working towards goal Y. More importantly, I don’t necessarily think that the solutions offered by Goldberg—basically, a whole host of social programs that keep women with children from being trapped at home—will result in the birth rate going up dramatically. Sure, women say that they don’t want to have more kids because they can’t afford them, and for many that’s true, but for some of us, it’s a nice, convenient excuse. Personally, there’s no amount of free daycare that would get me to have a kid. There would have to be a lot of women who want four to make up for those of us who want zero, and that, I think is a pipe dream. There’s no government program that’s going to make four pregnancies a delightful proposition, and no amount of free daycare will reduce the (to quote Katha Pollitt) gender Republicanism that sets into many households when babies enter. For some families, the extra hours returned to them from these programs would just mean that Dad can have them, transferring some responsibilities he has to take over to his wife. (I’ve seen this a lot with couple I know as their kids age and the amount of shit the wife has to do for the kids goes down. She ends up taking on more man duties like mowing the lawn, and he’s the one who gets the benefits of more time.)

But no matter how much you can correct for some of the routine injustices that discourage women from having children, I think it’s going to be increasingly hard to get around the fact that if kids are really, truly a choice, increasing numbers of people are going to say, “No thank you.” Right now, I think the childbirth rate is as high as it is because a lot of people have kids just because it’s what you do—it’s hard to imagine an alternative when it’s presented to you your whole life as just what you do. But as increasing numbers of people question that and refuse to have children, others will see that there’s an alternative and opt out. Plus, we’re seeing more people who have one and say, wow that was hard and that’s enough. This is good for children—after all, the more thought your parents put into having you, the more likely you’ll be taken care of, and the fewer siblings you have to compete with for resources, the better for your development. But it does throw a wrench into the plan of just making it easier so more people do it.

Because having children, despite being historically treated as an unquestionable joy, doesn’t make people happy. I’m sure for many people who really really wanted this, it does, but childless couples are as happy, if not happier on average than couples with children. Part of that, I suspect, is that so many couples with children slid into it instead of chose it actively, which can make a huge difference. We don’t necessarily need social science to puncture the illusion, though. Like I said, increasing numbers of people are going without and modeling for others that it can be done, and that is going to have an impact that no amount of free daycare can reverse.

But so what? Like I’ve said before, the right wing argument for endless population growth in the U.S. and Europe is based on the erroneous notion that wealth is strictly derived from labor (and then only men’s paid labor), and that resources have nothing to do with it. But the standard of living goes up the fewer people, especially dependent children, we have to split resources amongst. Surely we’re smart enough to use that fact to better care for our elderly population. The endless population growth model also stems from a commitment to unsustainable capitalism, and frankly right now we should be taking a long, hard look at the dangers inherent when we want everything to grow exponentially without considering what happens when the growth (in the current case, of housing prices) way outstrips our ability to handle it. I’d far rather have the country remake itself so that we have a more sustainable economic structure because shifting demographics forces our hand than the alternative, which is an environmental crisis caused by too many people tapping limited resources. And one of the two has got to happen. Trying to sustain our current situation by messing with demographics is just going to put off the day of reckoning into the future, and make it way worse when it comes.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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