My wife and I are part of the 1 percent—so we’re used to criticism. We’ve made a bundle—heck, a number of bundles—and while the rest of the nation seems to be in a slump, we’re just making more. We’re part of the false cult of quantity at the expense of quality. Our consumption hurts the environment. Our ridiculous tax breaks reward our selfishness at others’ expense. To give us larger breaks is so ridiculous a suggestion even the Wall Street Journal calls us tax “gangsters.” But we, I reply, are the makers. It’s right that our tax burden is lower, since we ultimately provide the raw material for jobs, innovation and future tax revenue.
Of course, when I say we’re in the top 1 percent, I mean kids. I can’t prove conclusively that we’re 1-percenters, but given that 2010 census data showed that only 1.9 percent of American homes had seven or more members, I think it’s likely. Many seven-plus households are surely multigenerational, and 2012 census data shows the average number of children under 18 per household living with parents was 1.88.
We ended 2012 with five. No. 6, God willing, will emerge from the womb in late summer.
Jonathan Last’s new book What to Expect When Nobody’s Expecting is the latest report on a world in which there are fewer children, more old people and a soon-to-be shrinking population. He emphasizes the negative effects of this trend on innovation, tax revenue and trade. One needn’t be a Keynesian economist to realize that some demand is necessary for an economy to function. Last warns that we now face economic consequences seen more drastically in Japan’s two-decades-plus slump. “If we want to continue leading the world,” he writes, “we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.”
Yet the freedom with which complete strangers make disparaging comments to parents with large families is legendary:
“You do know how to avoid those things, don’t you?” “Are you done yet?” “I’m glad it’s you and not me.” “Are they all yours?”
When the last is addressed to me, I stage-whisper, “They’re all mine—I’m just not sure who the mother is.” A friend with four boys likes to respond in his best mock-Khruschev: “We will bury you!” It generally ends the conversation.
Others regard us fertility 1-percenters as excuses for not multiplying. A few years ago, a thirty-something announcing her engagement was besieged by older ladies who still believed that baby carriages followed love and marriage. “No, we don’t want any children,” she responded. “Besides, Dave and Cathy [my wife] are having enough for all of us.”
While we all have our little Messiah complexes, I’m afraid this is unlikely.
Not only will Cathy be 40 when “6” arrives, but the statistics show the “have nots” growing in number. Among women closing their childbearing years today, 18.8 percent have had no children, while 18.5 percent have had one child. That means that two-fifths of American women together average half a child, whereas replacement fertility is 2.1. In order to keep us from becoming Japan, we need a lot more women like my wife—not her Ph.D. and tenure, but her childbearing.
Last sees no changes to population decline trends, noting that incentives to decrease fertility are effective, while cash or benefit incentives to increase it are not.
No surprise. Tax breaks ease the burden a bit, but people don’t have children for tax credits. Children cost money and often forestall career advancement for at least one and possibly both parents. People have children when they have hope and a vision for society. This vision is usually, though not always, religious.
Like many 1-percenters, we raise kids not just to “save Social Security,” but to do something better. Cathy and I are teaching them to lead productive economic lives, but most of all lives rooted in their Catholic faith. We’re teaching them to serve the sick and those in need among their relatives, friends and the strangers put in their way, even if it means financial sacrifice.
Given the growing numbers of lonely, family-less people in a world with few brothers and sisters, we just may bury you.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared March 2, 2013 on the Minneapolis Star Tribune website and is reprinted with permission. The image above pictures the cast of the 1965 movie musical Sound of Music starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.