There’s been much talk about falling birth rates from all sides of the political spectrum – but the elephant in the nursery is the Conservatives’ record on benefit cuts

It seems you can’t open a newspaper or political magazine these days without being confronted with a panic that women in the West are not having enough babies. 

On the right, men wring their hands about women’s individualism and desire to put career before children.

On the far-right, men condemn women’s “debauched” lifestyles while trad wife influencers set “white baby challenges”. Take white nationalist Ayla Stewart, who wrote: “As a mother of six, I challenge families to have as many white babies as I have contributed.”

Meanwhile, writers on the left comment that it’s not really young people’s fault that they aren’t reproducing when the housing and jobs market is what it is. 

In contrast, climate campaigners are worried that too many people are having too many children. 

It’s true that the UK’s birth rate has declined. In 2020, for the first time since records began, half of women in England and Wales remained childless or child free by their 30th birthday. The year before, women had on average 1.65 children, when population replacement rates need to be 2.1 children. 

An ageing population is the primary concern of low birth rates – people are living longer, needing more and more complex healthcare, and claiming pensions for longer. If states aren’t going to go bankrupt supporting its elderly, they need more working-age people to fund support. 

But what has been missed in many of the conversations about declining birth rates is the impact of austerity measures – and the disincentivising of birth by the Coalition and Conservative Governments of the past 12 years. 

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The Rape Clause

Let’s start with one of the most damning legacies of the Cameron and Osborne era – the two-child tax credit limit. Proposed in the age of austerity, the limit came into law under Prime Minister Theresa May. 

The benefits cut meant that parents could only claim child tax credits – introduced by Labour’s Gordon Brown – for their first two children. Any third or subsequent child born after 2017 would not be entitled to child tax credits. 

The exception to the rule was if a mother could prove her third or subsequent child was conceived by rape and that she had left her abuser. This, apparently, was ‘compassionate Conservatism’.

Cutting the child tax credit entitlement was designed to encourage people to have the children they could afford – but not necessarily all the children they wanted. This effectively sent a message that only the wealthy were allowed to choose large families. 

According to the reproductive health charity BPAS, the child tax credit limit had a real influence on women’s abortion decisions, particularly during the Coronavirus pandemic when family budgets were squeezed.

BPAS found that more than half of the women it surveyed who had an abortion during the crisis, and who were aware of the two-child limit and likely to be affected by it, said the policy was “important in their decision-making around whether or not to continue the pregnancy”.

Women also told the charity that the limit effectively removed their choice over whether to continue a pregnancy or have a termination. 

Women from poorer backgrounds are three times more likely to have an abortion with those from the most deprived backgrounds accounting for 16.5% of all abortions, and women from the wealthiest backgrounds accounting for 5.9%. Almost two-thirds of women supported by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service cited “financial factors” as playing a part in their decision making to have a termination.

This is particularly ironic when you consider all but one of Cameron’s front bench in 2008 voted in favour of restricting abortion rights.

Every woman and pregnant person should have the right to end an unwanted pregnancy, and the choice to continue with a pregnancy knowing they and their child will get the support they need. This is the meaning of being ‘pro choice’. But instead, austerity measures have removed that decision from some low-income women. 


Means-Tests and Caps

Another policy impacting on finances for children was the decision in 2013 to change how child benefit was allocated.

Previously a universal benefit paid to the primary caregiver, child benefit was cut for those earning more than £50,000 via a tax charge. While some people would agree that those on high incomes should not get the same allowances as low income families, this ignored the principle of universal benefits to support families. It also had a negative impact on primary caregivers in violent and controlling relationships, who may not have access to their own money. 

People on Universal Credit are entitled to more money if they have children. But because the benefit is paid to a nominated member of the household – usually the main ‘breadwinner’ – it has been accused of facilitating domestic abuse. This is because abusers who financially control their victims can deny them the money they are entitled to from the welfare state. 

Then there was the benefit cap, which stated that a family could only receive a limited amount of benefit money per year – the cap stands at £384.62 per week for couples or single parents whose children live with them, and who live outside of London (£442.31 per week for those in the capital). Such a cap has an impact on families when it comes to choosing how many children they want to have. 


Demographic Winters

The far-right has used the decreasing birth rate to rally support behind the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory – which baselessly claims that white people in the West are being replaced by migration from the Global South, aided by feminist repressing the birth rate with abortion rights.

It’s imperative that when conversations about falling birth rates take place, the far-right conspiracies about “demographic winters” – a term used by far-right Italian leader Matteo Salvini – are robustly rebuffed. These conversations too easily shift into anti-abortion, Islamophobic and racist hate. 

Instead, the focus should be on supporting women and parents to have the children they want to have, ensuring real and informed choice when it comes to starting a family. That requires a strong welfare state, a recognition that families should be valued no matter their socio-economic background, and access to abortion and contraception to all who need it, too. 

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