The question of how many children other people have may be timeless fodder for gossip, but it’s also a matter of significant modern societal concern. Some will argue that nation-states need population growth in order to thrive, while others view having too many—even any—children as a selfish contribution to climate change and the potential destruction of the planet. The subject of how many children to have is, meanwhile, of course, highly personal—and so always touchy: Recently, a seemingly anodyne personal essay in the The New York Times about becoming a mother at the age of 25 drew ire from many American women online, who interpreted it as an argument about the correct way to live, or who saw young motherhood as an anti-feminist choice. There may be more opinions on the correct number of kids to have than any of us can imagine. But is it a question the government should ever really be involved in?

Leslie Root, a researcher in demography at the University of Colorado Boulder, is skeptical. For Root, social policies intended to manipulate the scale of a population are often futile at best. Countries with strong social safety nets relative to the United States’ often have lower birthrates. And explicitly linking new policies to birthrate goals means that governments may scrap new programs after a population is growing again. Small, temporary changes to fertility rates are not, Root thinks, the cause for alarm that a lot of media coverage will suggest. Rather than worrying about “replacement-level” fertility, governments can play a much more consistent and positive role in making it easier for people to have the families they want to have, whether that means with several children or none at all.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Why are big-picture population goals so often so central when politicians or advocates or governments frame public-policy issues? In the United States, where you’re based, the importance of universal child care is almost inseparable in public discourse from the idea that it would contribute to optimal birthrates.

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