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Social Security solution: Have more babies
By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service


March 30, 2005

Washington - Out there on a smile and a shoeshine, President Bush is trying with Willy Loman-like doggedness to sell his plans for Social Security reform. But even his audiences of carefully screened true believers don't seem to be buying it.

The president needs a Plan B and, curiously, out of Australia comes a plan that would save Social Security. It's more circuitous than the president's, but lots more fun.

Concerned about a paucity of little Australians, the government offered women a bounty of $2,319 for every baby born after July 1. And the good citizens responded with 133,400 babies, the most born in a six-month period in 14 years.

In announcing the program, Peter Costello, Australia's equivalent of our treasury secretary, urged his fellow citizens, "You go home and do your patriotic duty tonight." (We always thought "mate" was an Aussie term of endearment, not a command.)

Clearly having done his math about the future of the tax base, he announced that two was not enough. "You should have ... one for your husband, one for your wife, and one for your country."

If we adopt this program, we may have to import Costello to run it because I can't imagine anybody in the Bush administration who is up to making that kind of announcement, certainly not our own treasury secretary, John Snow.

The problem in Australia, Japan, Europe and, to a lesser extent, here, is that the number of retirees is growing faster than the number of workers to support them. From 16 workers per retiree, our base will shrink to something like three workers per retiree.

The Australian solution: More babies. The American advertising industry has proved that sex sells and, as a concept, it beats stumping the American heartland trying to sell the idea of private retirement accounts to a bunch of suspicious goobers.

There is some evidence that the country might be ready for the idea of more children. The New York Times reports that, with the U.S. birthrate the lowest ever, a number of American cities are becoming virtually child-free. In one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Portland, Oregon, the number of school-age children grew by exactly three over 10 years. San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children, 14.5 percent, of any major U.S. city. Seattle is a close second.

The pool of school-age children in Portland is drying up so fast, reports the Times' Timothy Egan, that Portland will have to close the equivalent of three to four elementary schools a year over the decade.

The root of the problem of disappearing children is the low birthrate, but in certain stylish cities it's compounded because of housing costs. Wealthy retirees and well-to-do singles and childless couples can afford them; parents of small children generally cannot.

Eventually, the high cost of houses will solve itself when there are not enough children to grow up to afford them. Between 2003 and 2004, says the Times, only six states had an increase in their elementary-school population. There's a limit to how long those states can supply solvent adults to San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.

Some point to immigration as a solution, but the problem is that the immigrants inevitably become Americans and their birthrate plunges just like everybody else's.

What we need are government officials like Peter Costello who can tell the people to go forth and breed so we can save both Social Security and Portland. It would also give the Department of Homeland Security something really useful to do. We could start by changing its name to the Department of Homeland Fertility.


Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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