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The Guardian view on falling birthrates: to parent or not to parent?

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There are not many things that most people agree on. But one is that it is a good thing if adults who want children are able to have them. This is the simple idea at the heart of a new report from the Social Market Foundation thinktank, which examines the case for pronatalist policymaking in the UK in the context of a falling birthrate, and recommends more research. The Scottish government, the report says, already has a population taskforce.

So far so uncontroversial. The birthrate in England and Wales stood at 1.58 in 2020, well below the 2.1 required to replace the population (in Scotland, the birthrate was 1.29). More than a quarter of the world’s countries have explicitly pronatal policies, usually entailing financial incentives designed to encourage people to have babies. While often associated with anti-immigrant rightwingers, such policies include birth grants in Finland and variable tax rates in France, as well as housing subsidies and other rewards in Hungary and Poland. Pronatalism need not be the exclusive concern of nativist politicians seeking to reverse population declines.

That said, many socially liberal people, and particularly feminists, are suspicious of those who advocate for larger families as public policy. Such goals have long been seen as running counter to women’s struggle for equality at work, and in public life more broadly. Historically, pronatalist policies have been linked to attempts to restrict female reproductive and other freedoms, most notably in Nazi Germany.

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Such disturbing associations aside, discomfort often accompanies the idea of official intrusion into what we have been taught, in liberal democracies, to regard as a highly personal choice. What business of the government is it whether we decide to have one child, four children, or none? The SMF answers this question as tentatively as one might expect, given its own centrist politics and the UK’s socially laissez-faire record in this area. But it concludes that the economic effects of the demographic shift that the UK is now going through merit further consideration.

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Evidence from around the world suggests that if the committees recommended by this report are convened, the climate crisis will figure much more prominently as an issue than it does here. One recent survey found that four in 10 young people are hesitant about having children due to their awareness of the growing risks of disastrous global heating. Along with this existential threat, and the fundamental lack of security and hopefulness about the future that it gives rise to, are more immediate problems including the UK’s dysfunctional housing system, low wages and insecure employment, and a chronically underfunded childcare sector that is the third most expensive in the world.

It is impossible to say definitively which of these has contributed most to the decline in births. There is no reason why people should not discuss this. But when funding cuts over the past decade have led to a situation where nearly half of all families with three children or more live in poverty at the moment, it seems fanciful to imagine that the government would exert itself to improve the life chances of babies who have not even been born.