Voices: You wouldn’t think Prince Harry’s book and a Chinese crisis have much in common – but hear me out

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

You wouldn’t think Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, and a demographic crisis in China have much in common – but hear me out.

Last night, I finished reading the rebel royal’s book. In it, he describes his longing for a spouse and a family, and his fear (before he met his wife, Meghan) that it would never happen for him. I found that intensely relatable. I am 37 years old next month, unmarried and childless. This is not completely by choice. The right man has never come around, and until recently I didn’t feel prepared to be a parent. (Does anyone ever, though?) Still, it’s a sore spot, the one thing besides economic security I am lacking in my otherwise pretty terrific life.

This morning, however, reminded me that, even if Prince Charming comes along tomorrow, I’m not sure I would want to raise kids with him. Not in America, at any rate. Who can afford it? And if you can, who wants to worry they’re sending their children to slaughter every time they board the school bus? It doesn’t bear thinking.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics released data showing that country had 850,000 fewer people at the end of 2022 than it had at the end of 2021. This marks the first time in 60 years – since the Great Famine – the population of China has shrunk. Exacerbated by its longstanding and self-explanatory one-child policy, China now faces an aging citizenry with too few young people to support and care for them. It’s a demographic crisis.

In this country, as throughout much of the West, the far-right is also concerned about a demographic crisis. Their baseless fear of white replacement – that ethnic Europeans and the descendants of white settlers in other Western nations are being systematically “replaced” by Black and brown people from the global south – is well documented. “We can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies,” former far-right Republican Representative Steve King once said. Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, has accused the left of being “offended by fertility and nature and the idea that people reproduce” as he declared a fertility crisis in the United States.

I’m a strident socialist and I want babies more than anything, so I don’t believe Carlson is right about the left being offended by people having children. He isn’t wrong, however, that the United States is facing declining birthrates of our own. This trend began with the 2008 Financial Crisis and has not abated; 2019 saw birthrates reach their lowest level in 35 years.

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated this. In 2021, the Census Bureau released data showing that population growth has fallen to an all-time low of just 0.12 per cent. This is due to increased death rates, decreased birth rates, and a stark decline in net migration exacerbated by the Trump administration’s xenophobic rhetoric and policies. The Census Bureau itself predicts there will be more senior citizens than children by 2035 – a mere 12 years from now.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory, though. People generally aren’t reproducing because they’re leftists who hate biology, or because they want to import babies from other countries like they’re iPhones, as Steve King thinks. A 2018 New York Times survey found that 64 per cent of people who wanted more kids can they have cited the expense of childcare, while 49 per cent said they were worried about the economy and 44 per cent said they couldn’t afford to have more children, full stop.

The lack of ability to afford childcare or a house and worry about the economy were also leading reasons people who don’t want children, well, don’t want them. This is not an accident, but the consequence of bad public policy and neoliberal economics. US wages have remained stagnant since the early 1970s, despite increased productivity of American workers. Home prices, however, hit record highs last year while nearly half of us can’t afford rent on a one-bedroom apartment. One in 10 families can’t afford groceries and the Department of Agriculture estimates that 54 million Americans lack access to healthy food.

Meanwhile, as I recently learned from experience, our healthcare system ranks worst among high-income nations, despite being the most expensive. I received the tax credit to lower my monthly health insurance premium through the exchange because I make so little (being a freelance journalist and graduate student pays the bills, but only just), but because I couldn’t afford my December premium of $350 I was not allowed to pay my January premium of $15. After weeks of negotiating with the bureaucracy of both the federal exchange and my (now former) insurance company, I was able to get insurance that will go into effect February 1.

Until then, I’m hoping not to join the 100 million Americans who have medical debt, including the 12 per cent of the population who owes more than $10,000, by doing my level best to avoid getting sick or having an accident. Either would be financially catastrophic. If I can’t even afford to sprain my ankle, how the hell am I supposed to afford a child?

Even if I could afford the child, like millions of other Americans I couldn’t afford the childcare. We spend the least on helping families access childcare out of our peer nations. We have the worst maternity leave laws in the world; new parents get 12 weeks paid leave, with only five per cent of new fathers taking more than two weeks parental leave.

Of course, assuming we can afford childcare, we have to worry our children will be murdered in their daycare. Gun violence is now the leading cause of death for American children. And while teachers are expected to die for our children, they aren’t paid like the heroes they are and our schools remain neglected. A study by The Century Foundation found that our schools are underfunded to the tune of $150bn every year.

If you do manage to get your children through high school alive and reasonably educated, though, it’s still not enough. As Republicans continue to challenge student loan forgiveness, college remains unaffordable for many Americans, despite a bachelor’s degree now being the equivalent of what a high school diploma was a generation ago. I saw this firsthand when I worked in the mortgage industry. The entry-level job I took in 2011 was open to any high school graduate; when I left the company in 2013, the same company was hiring only college graduates for that position.

Who wants to have a kid they can’t afford, only to send them out into a world they can’t compete in? The deck is stacked against us, the working people of this country. This is why I always say that if I have children, I will not raise them in America. This is no place for children. It’s barely fit for adults.

If America wants to reverse its population decline, it needs to provide Americans with policies and a social safety net to support those of us who do want to begin families. This includes mandating a national living wage, universal healthcare free at the point of access, subsidies for healthy foods and affordable housing (or even building public housing). It means comprehensive gun control to keep our children safe. It means bringing down the cost of college.

Essentially, it means overhauling our entire culture to one that encourages community and collectivity rather than capitalism and rugged individualism. It means understanding that our fates are intwined, not determined solely by ourselves.

Prince Harry learned this when he married Meghan and put his wife and children first. Now, we have our own lessons to learn. If he can leave the Royal family, we can help working families right here in the US.

And American families – present and future – need our help. The demographic crisis is coming for us too. It’s time we begin to address it. For our kids’ sake, real and hypothetical, let us become the kind of society that encourages and nurtures families and children – not the kind of society that starves them, and then shoots them in their schools.