Won’t someone please think about the childless?

Charlie Escobar, 3, bites into breakfast at the Baltimore Catholic Charities Head Start program in Edgewood, Md., June 13 (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

The child-free movement in the United States has not yet become a visible lobby in Washington. The Wikipedia entry on “voluntary childlessness” ends with a dismissive “[the] movement has not had significant political impact.” This is frustrating to those who view childless adults as responsible (Grist’s Lisa Hymas: “Choosing not to have children is by far the biggest step an American can take to limit the size of his or her environmental footprint.”) and unfairly burdened in workplaces that offer parental leave.

Will the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) become a galvanizing issue for voters who choose not to reproduce? We’ve noted that some opponents of the ACA aren’t happy that men are required to buy insurance that covers women’s health needs (who may be “hypochondriacs,” says Fox News’s John Stossel). This week economist Greg Mankiw zeroes in on the development that “Everyone is now expected to buy insurance to pay for pregnancy and maternity care.” Pregnancy isn’t an unexpected medical condition like cancer!

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[…] having children is more a choice than a random act of nature. People who drive a new Porsche pay more for car insurance than those who drive an old Chevy. We consider that fair because which car you drive is a choice. Why isn't having children viewed in the same way?

Slate’s Matthew Yglesias is appalled by this argument. He writes that the “choice” issue is a diversion from the knee-jerk opposition to any program that asks high-income individuals to contribute more to the safety net for all. Not wanting to spend too much time on the obvious point that everyone benefits from a new generation of healthy, educated citizens, Yglesias moves on to the apparently not-obvious-enough worthiness of respecting human life:

One of the main goals of any kind of political community is the enduring of the political community. That requires the rule of law and blah blah blah but it also obviously requires there to continue to be living breathing human beings who belong to the political community. Which is to say that children, though expensive, differ from luxury cars in that they are human beings. By the same token, you could note that while it is illegal to take your Porsche (“theft”) and also illegal to take your baby (“kidnapping”) we have different words for these crimes and one is punished more severely than the other. Indeed, babies aside if I were to destroy Mankiw’s Porsche that would be punished much less severely than if I were to destroy Mankiw himself (“murder”) because, again, Mankiw is a person. It’s not just that people are considered very valuable. Even if I destroyed ten or twenty Porsches, the punishment would be light compared to if I murdered someone in cold blood. Cars aren’t people. Babies aren't luxury consumer goods. That’s just how it is.

And when you look at American politics, in which Social Security and Medicare constitute an untouchable “third rail” but programs that benefit children (Food Stamps, Head Start, help with escalating day-care costs) are the first to be cut for the appearance of austerity, it’s hard to believe that public policy really disadvantages childless citizens. Funding for public education is hardly a sure-fire winner at the ballot box. Last week Colorado voted almost 2-1 against an income tax hike that would have provided $1 billion for an overhaul of the state’s schools, including not only aid to poorer districts but innovations like longer school days and school years. The election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City can be seen as a sign of support for early education, as he proposed a surtax on city residents making more than $500,000 a year in order to fund pre-school programs. But limiting the sacrifice to the super-rich doesn’t say much about community values, and it’s far from certain that de Blasio will be able to get his proposal approved in Albany. (As noted in a previous post, the legacy of this alleged Marxist may be more private development in New York.)

Obamacare mandates notwithstanding, there’s not much for child advocates to cheer for in American politics. The Atlantic’s Stephen Lurie writes that a lack of concern for educating the next generation is ingrained in our political culture. He takes a look at countries that outperform the United States and notes:

Every country that bests us in the education rankings either has a constitutional guarantee to education, or does not have a constitution but has ensured the right through an independent statute. Each has constructed law around education as a fundamental right of citizens, at least until the age of adulthood.

It’s a provocative question: Should education get the same constitutional protection as gun ownership? It’s also a moot question, as the chance of such a constitutional guarantee making it through Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures is almost nil. The childless lobby doesn’t win everything, but it has an excellent track record of limiting its obligations to the next generation.

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