The American Birth Dearth

Originally published by The Carolinian Newspaper

Economic insecurities and financial concerns play a large role in the decision to delay having kids. Women often choose education and career over children, putting off childbearing until later years. And there’s plenty of research to show that more educated women have children later.

In 2018, the United States experienced the fewest number of births in 32 years, making it 10 of the past 11 years that births declined. Coupled with a declining fertility rate, it means the country is generally considered to be below the “replacement” level for its overall population.

A report this month based on birth certificate data from 2017 provided to the National Center for Health Statistics through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program shows yet again that Americans aren’t having enough kids to meet the replacement rate.

To maintain a steady population, a nation needs a replacement rate of about 2.1 — essentially, every person capable of giving birth produces an average of 2.1 babies over the course of their lifetime.

Replacement level fertility is the level of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next. In developed countries, replacement level fertility can be taken as requiring an average of 2.1 children per woman. In countries with high infant and child mortality rates, however, the average number of births may need to be much higher.

As this birth dearth enters its second decade, the U.S. seems to be joining Europe and Japan in trending towards an increasingly aging population.

A 2019 New York Times survey found the most common reason young adults give for avoiding pregnancy, cited by 64% of respondents, is that “child care is too expensive.” A report by economist Lyman Stone Aries that the birth rates in the US is in part a result of the changing culture surrounding marriage noting that “Most changes in marital status … can be attributed to the increasing delay in young people getting married. In other words, declining fertility is really about delayed marriage.” While Stone finds most Americans still hold childbearing in high regard, there are additional barriers to childbearing including young adult debt, rising housing costs, and many other factors.

Why does the birth dearth matter?

Phillip Longman describes the effects of the birth dearth in his book, “The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It.” A population expert, Longman posits whether it’s real estate or consumer spending, economic growth and population have always been closely linked. “There are people who cling to the hope that you can have a vibrant economy without a growing population, but mainstream economists are pessimistic,” says Longman.

Once a country’s fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the large group of elderly dies, the population begins to contract. This dual problem–a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall–has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences. The birth dearth influences the ability of the workforce to support social security and other social service programs. Either benefits will be trimmed, or the young will have to pay an even higher portion of their income to fund the older population. As these taxes rise, productivity declines.

There won’t be enough people paying taxes and contributing to the economy to balance the country’s long-term obligations. There is a decline in military power as fewer individuals are at the age of entry. Cultural shifts based on national influence occur, immigration waves change as citizens of overpopulated countries move toward those less populated, but with fewer social programs. Future generations will be dealing with this issue for decades to come, but there are other more pressing issues such as the impact on juvenile products makers and sellers of such items as strollers, cribs and baby safety equipment. But it’s also diaper manufacturers, companies that make formula and baby food and those that sell infant clothing.

Giving birth and raising children requires some sort of faith or hope in the future, a belief that the human condition is worth experiencing, and a confidence that one can nurture a proper environment for the education of a new life. This is the real issue – hope in tomorrow and faith in one’s ability to navigate through it with tiny humans dependent on that ability. America’s birth dearth is real, but so is the need to develop a national culture that encourages life, liberty, and faith in the pursuit of happiness.