By Vidya Mahavadi
Disclaimer: The arguments presented in this article, in no way, condone the unethical nature of the One-Child Policy or any other derivates meant for regulating population growth. Given the potential moral problems that would arise, this article is more of a theoretical approach and musings upon that theory as it relates to the USA.
China has long been known for its infamous “One-Child Policy” (OCP), the government’s controversial attempt to curb its growing population. When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, sanitation and healthcare improved drastically, and with it came an exponential growth in China’s population. Mao Zedong, the PRC’s communist leader, decided to utilize the booming population, and in 1958 launched the Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign aimed at modernizing China’s communist society through industrialization. In order to maximize production through the use of the population, Mao banned the use of contraceptives and family planning, planting the seeds for the devastating consequences that were soon to follow. Within a couple years, industrialization coupled with an ever-increasing population created immense shortages in the food supply and by 1962, massive famines resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. After attempts to control the situation reaped limited yields, the government implemented the One-Child Policy in 1979, in hopes that a drastic measure such as this would permanently ameliorate China’s situation.
With certain exceptions, the OCP essentially restricted families from having more than one child, based on the premise that not having additional children would significantly benefit future generations by allowing families to concentrate more on the “quality” of each child, rather than the “quantity,” giving them a chance to provide and invest more per child. For those families still not convinced, implementation included using a variety of financial and other incentives, including greater access to housing, education, and health services. Along with the provided incentives, the government also made sure to penalize the families that refused to forego having additional children, laying financial levies on each additional child and using social pressures to coerce families into stopping after just one child. There were even instances where officials forced families into getting abortions or sterilizations to avoid further problems.
Around this time in China, as in a lot of areas around the world, gender inequality was rampant and the idea that boys were worthier than girls was highly prevalent. The existence of such an attitude immediately brought about the social consequences of the OCP; for instance, rates of infanticide rose as families tried to ensure the birth of a son as their only child. The OCP took a heavy toll on China’s population, from a social standpoint, bringing in criticism from way beyond the Chinese border. As the social cost of the policy was becoming more apparent, however, the economic, environmental, and educational benefits of the policy were simultaneously becoming more evident. Noting that the benefits of the policy in no way condone the unethical methods and implications this policy created, it is important to recognize that aside from the ethical issues, the OCP created dramatic improvement in many other aspects of Chinese society.
At a time when overpopulation was imposing heavy tolls on China, the OCP seemed to alleviate economic, education, health, and environmental problems. China’s increasing population had put an immense strain on the food supply that had been struggling to keep up with the country’s constant growth and the OCP provided the chance for the food supply to slowly catch up. From an economic standpoint, limiting childbirth actually increased the individual savings rate because of the very obvious: fewer children meant less expenditure per family. Alongside an increased savings rate, this new policy resulted in increased economic growth. Research done about the OCP illustrated that there was a negative relationship between birth rates and economic growth rates. This meant that economic growth decreased as births increased. Following the implementation of the OCP, numbers showed that between 1978 and 2008, China had higher GDP per capita growth rates than the United States, Europe, Japan, and India. The OCP’s effect in the economic sector also spurred positive effects in the education sector as educational wellbeing increased after the OCP started being enforced. Economists reasoned that families had a greater ability to provide their single child with a higher level education and felt the need to ensure the success of that child.
When first established, this policy was meant to be a temporary measure to help limit population growth, but it still exists after three decades. At a certain point, all the benefits that could have come from this policy have arrived, and now the negative consequences are starting to show. Diminishing marginal returns have come into play and the costs have started exceeding the benefits, sending China down a dreary road.
The key feature to focus on, however, is the time when the OCP actually created a positive impact on China. As jarring as this part may sound, imagine instituting such a policy in the United States or, given the extreme unethical nature of the OCP, imagine implementing a policy of regulated child-birth where families are required to space out the births of their children according to a thoroughly researched standard—one, for example, that gave families some time to save more for their next child. Such standards applied over the entire country could also give the environment a chance to escape overutilization. To a third person observer, these words may describe socialism, communism or anything opposing democracy, but what if such a policy were enforced over a temporary period just until studies show maximum benefits? In China, this happened during the early years of the OCP; given that fact, there might theoretically be some benefits present for the United States in the early years as well.
The most obvious area where an OCP-derived policy might produce positive effects is in regards to the economy. Taking into account the United States’ widening socioeconomic gap, implementing government regulated child-birth might actually prove helpful, especially considering low-income families. Wealthy families could easily bear the financial burdens of raising multiple children, but families that are not as well off might be struggling to do so. Regulated pregnancies might provide a financial respite for these families, allowing them to save funds for their current and future use. Fewer children in a given time also implies less expenditures during that time period, a fact that could potentially increase the individual savings rate in the United States, much like it did in China. Based on the fact that several areas of the economy ultimately relate back to individual savings or money left over after paying rents, mortgages, etc., it is clear that regulating pregnancies might in fact have widespread positive effects.
With regulated population growth, the well being of children could similarly improve. As mentioned before, families around the upper levels of the income spectrum might find it easier to provide for multiple children than families around the lower end. Increased savings rates would allow these families to not only save more, but also invest more in each child’s future through education and health. Even if a One Child Policy is not implemented, in this case, simply enforcing a mandatory gap between children might aid families in alleviating parts of the financial burdens that come with having children.
Beyond the economic effects, however, an OCP-like policy might also help relieve environmental strains caused by overpopulation. An increasing population results in decreasing natural resources, a relationship that puts immense pressure on the environment. Utilizing a monitored pregnancy policy could slow down population growth and allow the environment to recuperate intermittently. This policy need not apply just to the United States—it can be extrapolated from the national context into a global one. Global overpopulation is a huge factor in today’s deteriorating environment, so using an external agent to adjust growth might actually prove effective.
As was seen in China, enforcing the practice of such a controversial policy posed great challenges and the government was required to resort to tactics such as forced sterilization and abortions. In the United States, however, the magnitude of such a problem will most probably be less, for the policy being applied deals not with limiting the number of children per family, but rather spacing the birth of these children. However, it can be stated with confidence that any policy allowing government infringement of personal freedoms will meet with an extreme amount of resistance. This proves that the One Child Policy or any extension does not necessarily indicate a solution for today’s problems. A prolonged One Child Policy is not effective because eventually, as was witnessed in China, the marginal returns of such a controversial policy slowly start decreasing. China also saw a major imbalanced sex ratio that is now creating problems in the job and social sectors. For this reason, this case study only includes the period of time where the policy would produce the most gains and that were it to be continued for as long as China, such a policy would drastically fail.
The point of this article is not to show that regulated pregnancies might be the answer to our problems, but rather to humor our imagination. Again, this policy should not be applied to the United States, but is rather a theoretical outlook on the One Child Policy using the United States as a case study.
Courtesy of Joan Vila
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