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The Relationship Between Public Works and the Birthrate

In the middle of his lengthy article about America’s “One-Child Policy,” Jonathan Last makes an interesting observation:

Finally, we could address the dirt gap—the underlying cost of land, which drives the cost of living and gives rise to the dramatic differences in fertility we see across the country. People often make decisions on where to live based on employment. High concentrations of jobs are found in intensely urban areas—Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago—which have correspondingly high land costs. This is why we have the accurate stereotype of the working couple who move from the city to the exurbs once they decide to have kids.

Geography is unpleasantly resistant to social planning. There are only so many acres of land in Manhattan, and there’s nothing anyone can to do to make it less expensive (though correcting the absurdity of New York City’s rent-control/rent-stabilization system would help). But we could make the suburbs more accessible to cities by improving our highway system. Since 1970, the “vehicle lane miles” (that’s the metric traffic engineers use) consumed by Americans have risen by 150 percent. During that period we added 5 percent to our highway capacity. Now you know why we have so much traffic.

The answer is not building more public transportation. Parents trying to balance work and children need the flexibility automobiles provide. The solution is building more roads. As Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam noted wryly in Grand New Party (2008), Dallas has twice as much pavement-per-person as Los Angeles and half the traffic. And, not coincidentally, a higher fertility rate. An improved highway system would make it easier for couples to have access to both the concentration of jobs cities provide and the affordable housing that the suburbs offer.

It makes sense that it takes physical space to raise children–space that his afforded by the much maligned American single family dwelling suburb.  Lower density developments encourage a higher birthrate, which is crucial for a society that wants opportunity and provision for as broad of a base of people as possible.  That may be one reason why the Soviet Union, with its emphasis on the fifty square metre apartment, had such a struggle with its own birthrate, even though it had the land to do otherwise.  (I would strongly urge you to read that piece, with its description of how different sized flats were doled out, to make the connection for yourself.)

It’s not an accident that the era of the great pushback against public works and development–the late 1960’s and early 1970’s–was also a time when the birthrate precipitously dropped.   Investment in roads, airports and other infrastructure, the inconvenience during their construction, and paying for them during use, doesn’t make sense to people whose own children won’t be there to use them.  That aversion extends to maintaining and upgrading the existing infrastructure as well, which is why ours is in such poor shape.

Something else Last notes is worthy of mention:

Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they’re making a cultural and theological statement.

The next time the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out its dreary report card on the state of American infrastructure, its members would do well to hope that the pews are as packed with people as the congresspeoples’ offices are with lobbyists for more roads and sewers.  We need to resist the siren call of rabid secularism that certain portions of the scientific community are so enamoured with; we may find ourselves with a totally unscientific result, i.e., unemployed.


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