America's declining birth rate


Confirmation of a noticeable decline in the American birth rate — across all races and even across rural and urban women — is interesting by itself. What makes the topic fascinating is the reasons some people are coming up with to explain why fewer babies being born.

Cultural shifts among women, such as getting married later in life and focusing on education or work instead of motherhood, clearly play a role. As does the rising wealth in the country, since many studies report lower birthrates in richer nations.

The Washington Post reported last week that one economist believes parental leave and pay policies discourage starting a family. A missionary organization blames “pro-abortion population control groups like Planned Parenthood. And Tucker Carlson of Fox News blames immigration, which he says drives wages down and hurts the appeal of men as potential spouses.

Another suggestion, one that frankly makes a little more sense than the prior three, is the idea that greater exposure to chemicals and pollutants might be affecting reproductive health among both men and women.

But if you need a big-picture guess about declining birthrates, here it is: While raising a family is immensely rewarding, it also is immensely expensive. It makes total sense for couples to reduce the number of children they have to compensate for these rising costs.

The topic is important because birthrates are historically a good indicator of a country’s economic health. The population must rise for an economy to grow, so a nation’s birthrate needs to be above the “replacement rate” of 2.1 babies per woman.

But if the birthrate is too high, too many young people may not be able to find work. If it’s too low, the economy can contract and a smaller workforce has to pay the taxes to support a larger retired population.

The Post reported that as recently as 2007, rural counties had a birthrate of 2.2 per woman. Those in small and medium urban areas were at 2.1, while those in large cities were just below 2.1.

How times have changed. In just a decade, all three types of residential areas are significantly below that 2.1 replacement rate. Rural women are at 1.95, small/medium urban are at 1.78 and big-city women are at 1.71.

There is one positive element of the report, and that is a decline in births to teenage women. That figure peaked in 1991 but in 2016 it hit an all-time low.

One surprise is a steep drop of 25 to 30 percent in Hispanic birthrates over the past decade. Hispanic women typically have a high birthrate, but now their figure also is below the 2.1 replacement rate.

For a statistic like the birthrate, 10 years is more of a blip than a trend. However, there is sure to be a negative impact on the American economy if the birthrate keeps declining at its current pace for another decade.

Legal immigration, it should be noted, can keep a population growing when birthrates are declining. What an irony it would be if one day in the near future the country decides economic necessity requires us to welcome more foreigners.