Priority for Canada: More children

Happy Canada Day
Happy Canada Day (Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)

The latest census figures show Canada’s birth rate stuck way below the replacement level. For every 100 adults there are only 80 children — a drop of 20 per cent in a generation. (Small comfort that a few years ago the drop was 25 per cent.)

In the long run, this “baby bust” is unsustainable. In 200 years, for example, our population of 34 million would collapse to only 7 million descendents.

Is immigration the answer? There are practical limitations to how high immigration rates can be tolerated. Many people, rightly or wrongly, fear that massive immigration may overwhelm their way of life.

And we have to recognize that immigration is a two-edged sword: Canadians who leave (for the U.S. mostly) sometimes outnumber the immigrants who come in — as has happened in many decades already, for example, from 1860 to 1900 and again in the 1930s.

Sooner or later, then, we should seriously raise the birth rate. The longer we leave it, the more problems we will have. A declining population requires a painful downsizing in many institutions, from schools and churches to shopping malls. This downsizing, already occurring in many of Canada’s smaller communities, will only get worse if the baby bust continues.

And as fewer children are born every generation, the number of young people shrinks and shrinks. Another decade of baby bust will give us a Canada where there are more people in their 60s than any other age. This greying of our population means that in the long run there will be a lot fewer workers to support retirees with the Canada Pension Plan, so that the premiums each worker must pay into the plan will more than double. Even more important than this increasing pension burden may be the social consequences: a population with few young people may have a lot less joie de vivre.

How did we arrive at our unsustainably low birth rate? Of the many reasons, one of the most interesting is that some parents feel — often vaguely but nevertheless strongly enough to influence their decision — that stopping at two children will “replace themselves,” and even achieve a levelling out of population growth.

There is a huge catch in this, however. Remember that some women have fewer than two children (they may have fertility problems or choose to be childless). So to maintain a level population, there must be some women who have more than two children.

So the three-child family (or more) should be recognized as a great benefit to the nation — the only way, except for uncertain immigration, to stem the looming population decline.

Fortunately, many of the policies that would encourage parents to have more children are the same policies that simple justice requires. To take one of many examples, the federal government should allow income splitting for all couples, not just pensioned couples.

Another helpful policy would be to reduce post-secondary tuition, to free parents from some of the worry about how to pay for their children’s education. Even more important, this would reduce the burden of paying off student loans, which falls disproportionately on those with lower incomes.

As well as government policy, it is also important to look at personal decision-making at the family level. When couples with one or two children weigh whether or not to have another, they usually are very aware of the costs involved. Maybe they also should be aware of the benefits, including those that may be overlooked because they cannot be captured with statistics.

For instance, children with more siblings have more opportunities to learn to share and to negotiate — two invaluable life skills.

Or a couple with two sons, for example, who go on to have a daughter, may feel that if they had never had this child, it would have left a real hole in their life — regardless of whether it was a girl or a boy.

And if the parents go on to three or more children, until they have both genders, it is not only they who will enjoy the additional variety. Most children will have both a brother and a sister — a diversity not available to the one- or two-child family.

But surely the greatest benefit of having more children is in knowing that each birth, whether it is the first or fourth, is likely to create a lifetime of immeasurable value — that will overwhelm whatever costs the parents incurred, unless they are exceptionally disadvantaged.

So the reward for larger families goes far beyond the satisfaction that comes from contributing to the viability of Canada as we know it. There is a much deeper contentment for parents in knowing that raising their children is the most creative and loving thing that most couples can ever do.

Tom Wonnacott taught statistics at the University of Western Ontario for 40 years.

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