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The U.S. birth rate is at historic lows. This worries a lot of people. The same people who have made it their life's work to make bringing babies into this world a challenging and even frightening prospect. Too bad they can't see the connection.
The new numbers are out and the United States has the lowest birth rate it has ever experienced: 59.6 births per 1,000 women. A lot of people are concerned about this because population growth, the argument goes, is a good thing. A capitalist economy with elder entitlements like we have is, roughly speaking, a Ponzi scheme, with the new “investors” paying off the older ones. Once you stop getting new investors, the scheme collapses.
There are a lot of caveats to that general description of the utility of birth rates, and we’ll talk about them in a minute. Before we do, however, let’s acknowledge that the very act of talking about birth rates is itself a mixed bag.
There are a lot of stealth political arguments which get imported into the birth rate conversation. A big one concerns immigration. If your native population is not having babies but you’re seeing steady immigration – and if those immigrants are being successfully integrated into the workforce – the economic problems associated with low birth rates – the Ponzi scheme thing – are solved. Or, at the very least, they’re put off for a generation or two. As we’ve seen this election cycle, however, the idea of immigrants coming to the U.S. and working for a living is, somehow, rage-inducing in certain people, so at the outset of one complicated conversation – that of birth rates – you’re necessarily introducing another complicated and controversial topic.
And that controversial topic can get even more controversial! That’s because, as has always been the case, there are some for whom immigration is far more than an economic topic. For many, immigration causes cultural and even existential anxiety. It causes them to worry about the current and future racial and ethnic makeup of the country. Whether it was nativists in the 1870s worrying about the filthy papist hordes coming over from Europe or Donald Trump supporters worrying about allegedly raping, murdering Mexican/ISIS sleeper cell members, talk of birth rates and immigration gets submerged in a an often racist mire.
Less odious, but still no less polarizing, are the attitudes people bring into the birth rate conversation about reproduction itself. People whose religion considers procreation a theological imperative. People who believe, for whatever reason, that having children is something akin to slavery or subjugation. Urbanites and professionals who consider it totally appropriate to wait until their late 30s or early 40s to have kids. People in rural areas at whom their peers look askance if they haven’t had kids by the time they’re in their mid-20s. Friends who agree on any number of complicated matters get into big fights when the topic of having kids, or not, comes up. Songs are written about this stuff. And that’s even if you are lucky enough to avoid swerving into abortion politics.
So, yeah, birth rate talk is a freakin’ minefield. But it’s one we can’t avoid, really, because having kids, or not, feeding them, or not, and watching them grow up to be productive members of society, or not, is a pretty fundamental part of the human experience.
So, low birth rates: are they a bad thing?
For much of our nation’s history I’d say they were. It doesn’t happen much in industrialized countries now, but famine, disease and war could wipe out a huge chunk of a generation once upon a time. Likewise, at least since the 1930s, that whole Ponzi scheme has worked fairly well, with current workers supporting the living and medical costs of the old folks as well as helping out their contemporaries who needed assistance. Social Security, Medicare and the component parts of our welfare state depend upon a birth rate that hits a certain sweet spot.
But it’s not just economics which are benefitted by a healthy birth rate. Culturally speaking we are probably healthier when we are led and defined by generations who have more years ahead of them as opposed to their best years behind them and those younger generations are more likely to gain cultural currency more quickly if they are greater in number. Baby Boomers were a pretty transformative generation when they were young. They’re quite a drag now and, even if the magazine thinkpieces get stale, it’s good that Millennials are driving them bonkers. It’s always better to look forward than back.
I can’t help but wonder, however, if those assumptions about birth rates aren’t changing, and understandably so.
When I talk with other parents about our shared anxieties or when I talk to friends without children about their thought process regarding whether or not they’ll have kids at some point, we tend not to talk about demographic trends. We may give a nod to the social aspects and personal politics of reproduction, but once you get to the agreed upon point that having children is any person’s own choice, polite folks don’t keep disagreeing on the matter.
Rather, we talk about how public schools are terrible in the places we’d like to live and how the places where the schools are good are either far away from urban centers or are prohibitively expensive. We talk about how job security and jobs with actual benefits are scarce and, for some, approaching non-existent. We talk about how the cost of higher education is spiraling out of reach for the middle class, and how income and wealth are migrating to a smaller and smaller number of people. And that’s just if we’re privileged enough to have that conversation. For many, that conversation must and does expand to how public assistance for people who need it is stigmatized.
Simply put, the fundamentals in place when our population has boomed in the past – the existence of a bargain in which, if you do the right things, society will help take care of you as you, in turn, benefit society – have been totally busted.
For all of us, the question of “can we and should we reproduce” must be asked against a backdrop in which the last boom generation decided that, despite the fact that it was born into comfort due to shared sacrifice and investment in a common good, it would make it its life work to do everything it could to cut budgets, automate, export or eliminate jobs and to elevate profit and shareholder value over all else. Individual families are bearing more of the costs of raising children and society at large is bearing less than at any time since the advent of the New Deal. At the same time, workers are increasingly seen as bothersome expenses more than they are seen as providers for those children who those worried about declining birthrates so badly want to see born in greater numbers.
Indeed, most of the concern I’ve seen about declining birth rates comes from the political right. I’m not entirely sure why that is, as I don’t believe the topic to be one that lends itself to an easy and obvious right-left split, but that’s where the concern is loudest at the moment. As such, most of the proposed solutions tend to follow right-leaning policy preferences. Tax credits for children. The elimination of housing regulations. School choice provisions which, in practice, benefit privately-owned charter schools and for-profit eduction companies. In other words, policies which would encourage even further deregulation and a further marginalization of society when we are facing a threat which is purported to be a serious, societal problem. A crisis with no call whatsoever for sacrifice.
To the extent our declining birth rate becomes a more pressing national issue, those whose voices are the loudest about it the earliest will have a tremendous advantage when it comes to crafting solutions. I don’t much like the sound of the currently loud voices. My hope would be that those advocating for policies which actually impact people’s decisions about whether to have children – policies which allow for the involvement of society in what is supposed to be a societal problem, not those which hasten the retreat of it – get a say as well.