The year draws to a close. “Feminism” has been declared the word of the year. And House Speaker Paul Ryan has just urged women to have more babies for the good of the state.
A joke? An outtake from “The Handmaid’s Tale”? Alas, neither. At his weekly news briefing Thursday, Ryan, R-Wisconsin, suggested that the most important way to shore up the economy was for Americans to have bigger families.
“This is going to be the new economic challenge for America: People … I did my part, but we need to have higher birth rates in this country,” he said as part of a riff on how Republicans planned to tackle entitlement reform in 2018. “We have something like a 90 percent increase in the retirement population of America but only a 19 percent increase in the working population in America. So what do we have to do? Be smarter, more efficient, more technology … still going to need more people.”
And we all know whose job that is.
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It’s not that Ryan is wrong, exactly. The United States is in the middle of a baby bust, perhaps one more dire than we realize. Last year saw a record-low fertility rate, and an even sharper drop is predicted for 2017. To blithely instrumentalize the miracle of life in homage to the House speaker: We’ll need more bodies to keep the economy humming.
Even so, Ryan’s comments are shocking in their hypocrisy, not to mention obliviousness — at best — to the context in which they’ll be received.
To be clear: The prospect of having more children is not necessarily off-putting to women. True, Ryan’s comments feel particularly ill considered at this moment, given the creepy Congressional Surrogacy Surprise that emerged from the office of former House Republican Trent Franks, of Arizona, recently. And it is more than a little insulting to insinuate that to “do their part,” women need to lie back and think of America. That said, research has shown that many women in the United States have fewer children than they would like to have and begin having them later than they would prefer.
But this suboptimal situation is directly related to policies the speaker and his party have pursued. If Ryan wants more babies to prop up the United States, maybe he and the rest of the GOP should consider making it easier to live in America with one.
The reasons for delaying family formation are often economic. When those of childbearing age spend their entire stagnant incomes on rent, debt and healthcare, the prospect of having a baby recedes into the distance. The effect is most acute for women, who are often least able to afford housing, whose incomes are likely to sink after breaks for childbearing, and whose health risks increase with motherhood. (Maternal mortality is on the rise in the United States, yet the GOP’s proposed — and mercifully failed — healthcare reform considered cuts to pregnancy-related benefits.)
Yet rather than promoting policies that might ease the economic pressure, Ryan and his party are peddling a “tax reform” bill that prioritizes fiscal favors for corporations, which cannot have children, over everyday citizens who can. And once passed, the bill will cripple our country’s ability to pay for the sort of safety net that could make a new baby a cause for celebration rather than alarm.
If we must have tax reform, why not at the very least implement a more effective child tax credit that is fully deductible for those at the lowest income brackets? That would give those citizens generously contributing new “people” to our economy some support to help make ends meet. Or why not promote a real paid-leave proposal that encompasses both maternal and paternal leave, to make it easier to combine child care and work? The paltry provision attached to the bill is a gift for corporations, not parents.
Of course, maybe Ryan does really care about our demographic difficulties but doesn’t want to go about fixing them through economic means. If so, there is the obvious solution of liberalizing immigration, yet Republicans from top to bottom have refused to consider it.
When it comes down to it, there is a raft of policies that could help mitigate the problem of falling birth rates. The fact that they remain unimplemented suggests that maybe Ryan hasn’t “done his part” as well as he thinks.
Christine Emba is a Washington Post opinions writer and editor.