Acton Commentary

The Real Third Rail in Politics


Social Security is often described as the Third Rail of Politics. You touch it, you die of electric shock and exit the political stage in a hearse. Incoming Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson tested this proposition by giving his first major address on the subject of “entitlement reform,” aka Social Security. But behind the Third Rail of Social Security is the Real Third Rail — a subject so toxic, no one even wants to think about it. But if we could deal with this Forbidden Topic, the Social Security problem would largely solve itself.

That Real Third Rail is fertility. No one wants to mention that the insolvency of the Social Security system is a fertility crisis at least as much as a fiscal crisis. It is considered rude to mention 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.

America's total fertility rate peaked in 1957 at 3.68 babies per woman. Today, our fertility rate hovers right around the replacement rate of 2.1. The fertility of college educated non-Hispanic white women is now around 1.7. Since these are the women whose children are most likely to become the highest earning (and therefore, most tax-paying) citizens, their fall in fertility takes a particularly large toll on the future taxes paid into the Social Security system. -

According to Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns, authors of The Coming Generational Storm , the Social Security system does not recognize the contributions of working spouses. But the problem is even more acute: The system doesn't recognize the contributions of non-working spouses either. Nobody gets any credit for raising children.

When Social Security was established, people got married and stayed married for a lifetime. Most women stayed home and raised children. At the end of their lifetimes, most married couples were still together. The Social Security system took these family arrangements for granted.

In effect, both spouses made contributions to the Social Security system. The husband paid taxes. The wife raised children. When the family collected the pension, based on the husband's income, both spouses shared it.

As most people now realize, however, the husband's taxes don't go into a little account with his name on it. Those taxes go to pay the benefits of the currently retired generation. The children, raised by the wife, become the taxpayers who actually make the contributions that support the parents in their old age.

People who never have a child can still collect the taxes paid by other people's children. The Social Security of the 1930s took for granted women's contribution of raising productive adult children. That assumption has foundered in recent decades — possibly due in part to the incentives of Social Security itself. Economists Isaac Ehrlich and Jian-Guo Zhong found that countries with generous social security systems have lower fertility rates, marriage rates and higher divorce rates.

The most needed reform is the calculation of benefits based on both kinds of contributions, not just financial contributions. Phillip Longman is one of the few commentators to address the fertility problem of Social Security reform. In The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It , he proposes to link a couple's benefits not only to the income of the primary earning, but to the number of children they raise.

Today, it is considered politically incorrect to mention the obvious contribution of motherhood. Feminism taught us to believe that no self-respecting educated woman should be caught dead changing diapers. Public policies to encourage women to have more children are considered unacceptable infringements on women's freedom.

I am one woman who is ready to say that raising children is a good and socially constructive thing to do. Having more than one or two children can be a lot of fun. And it is for certain that raising a large family to productive adulthood will use all the gifts of even the most gifted woman. Having a family is a worthy life endeavor, deserving the educated woman's most serious consideration.

The Social Security system should recognize this fact, and link benefits to child-rearing. When Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson gets specific about Social Security reform, I encourage him to consider fertility “on the table.”

I'll stick up for him when the screaming starts.

A version of this article originally appeared on Townhall.com.