Budgeting for a baby

In 2024, being a good parent begins with a decision on whether it’s safe and fair to bring a child into the world at all

Jim Chalmers wants me to have a baby. Actually, Jim Chalmers needs me to have a baby – preferably two or three – as he told The Sydney Morning Herald last week. Australia’s natural birth rate sits at around 1.6, one of the lowest fertility rates in our history and well below the rate of 2.1 babies per woman that a population needs to sustain itself. It’s not as bad as it could be (in South Korea the birth rate is just 0.72), but it’s a pressing issue the treasurer wants to address with the 2025 Federal Budget.

“There are a whole range of reasons people’s preferences are changing. It’s expensive to raise kids.” To his credit, Chalmers immediately knocked back the suggestion that a Costello-style ‘baby bonus’ would be even remotely helpful in encouraging people who want kids to have them. And the government does seem to broadly understand the immediate economic barriers stopping women from having children.

A key focus of this budget, according to Chalmers, will be increasing housing supply to bring down the cost of renting and owning – Millennials and Gen Z can’t be expected to have children if we can’t put a secure roof over our own heads. To provide space in the household budget to accommodate two or more children, women also need fair wages, and for essentials like energy, groceries, childcare, education and healthcare to be more affordable. These are the factors in the nation’s ‘family planning’ that politicians are most comfortable discussing.

But they are far from the only reasons Australian women are hesitant to have babies. As a prime candidate for state-encouraged motherhood – married, in my 30s and childless-by-uncertainty – what scares me most is the long term view. As Victoria University’s population expert Xiujian Peng told the ABC: “The financial incentives are important but not effective on their own. You need to combine economic factors with all the others – social, cultural and political.”

If Chalmers wants to talk economics, what are the economic conditions that my potential child will grow up in? That my grandchildren will face? Am I being given any indication that today’s decision-makers are laying the groundwork for a more equitable economic system in 50 years time? Insisting on collecting more revenue through HECS than the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax would suggest not. 

For me, it’s an important consideration as I haven’t inherited wealth, and I don’t assume that I’ll create a fortune to pass down. When my potential child is 18 in 2042, how much will their university degree cost? Will they be able to live comfortably with time for rest, fun and community contribution? Or will scraping by with insecure work and multiple jobs be even more normal than it is now?

Australian Millennials are the first generation expected to be financially worse off than our parents, and our own struggles are informing the decision about whether to bring children into a world in which they’ll also struggle.

Then there’s the climate crisis. Sometimes the quiet, worried conversations I have with friends on the topic are vague: “What kind of world are we leaving for our kids?” Sometimes it’s more specific and dystopian: “How likely is it that our children or grandchildren will suffer through the climate wars?” 

It’s speculation, sure, but not so extreme when you consider current climate policies put us on track to hit a catastrophic 2.5ºC heating by 2100. Once we pass 2ºC the research shows sea levels will rise by 56cm; 37 per cent of the global population will suffer through severe heat waves; droughts will last twice as long. If I had a baby tomorrow, this hellscape would roll out in their lifetime.

And it could roll out much sooner than we all dreamed possible. Gretta Pecl, a marine ecologist at the University of Tasmania, told Guardian Australia: “I think we are headed for major societal disruption within the next five years. [Authorities] will be overwhelmed by extreme event after extreme event, food production will be disrupted. I could not feel greater despair over the future.”

Instead of taking these legitimate concerns seriously, the Australian government is doubling down on its commitment to cooking the planet. It is, ironically, refusing to listen to pleas of the children of Australia, while asking us to make more. 

The government needs me to have two babies. I understand why. But I don’t trust that it’s trying to build a safe and fair future for them to live in – not just in five or ten years time, but 50 and 100. If Jim Chalmers and his peers genuinely want to encourage young women to start families, this is the conversation they need to be brave enough to have. 

Crystal Andrews is a journalist and founder of Zee Feed.

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