Why America's Baby Bust Threatens Our Position As World Leader

Declining birth rates may excite people, but the prospect of fewer Americans poses serious problems.

For years the birth rate has been declining across much of the industrialized world. In many Western European countries, Russia, and Japan birth rates have already fallen below replacement levels. The United States was an exception to the rule, but now birth rates here have fallen precipitously as well. Just how much depends on what part of the country that you look at, however.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of US births in 2017 was the lowest since 1987 at 3.85 million. The birth rate was 1,765 births per 1,000 women (1.765), which is well below the 2,100 births, an average of 2.1 children per woman, that represent a replacement level, the number of births needed to maintain the current population. In short, the native-born population of the US is declining.

Interestingly, the decline in birth rates was not consistent across the entire US. The Southeast and the Midwest had higher birthrates than the Northeast and West Coast, but only two states, South Dakota and Utah, had birth rates greater than the replacement level. The area with the lowest birth rate, the District of Columbia (1,421 births), had a rate that was 64 percent that of South Dakota, the state with the highest birth rate at 2,227 births.

Demographics also make a difference when it comes to fertility. Hispanic women had the highest fertility rate of any ethnicity in the study. In 29 states, Hispanic women surpassed the replacement rate. Black women reached the replacement rate in 19 states, but white women fell below replacement level in every state.

Women in rural areas had higher birth rates than urban women while women with higher educations often delayed having children or did not have children at all. The researchers also said that cultural, religious and economic differences affected birth rates for different regions of the country. They speculated that South Dakota’s high birth rate could be due to the economic boom there created by the oil industry.

While declining birth rates may excite people who believe that humans are destroying the planet and worry about overpopulation, the prospect of fewer Americans poses serious problems. One of the most obvious aspects is the effect that fewer workers will have on entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. These programs are funded by payroll taxes, but the big three entitlements are getting more and more expensive due to large numbers of retiring Baby Boomers. The shrinking workforce means fewer paychecks to withhold from and complicates the problem of funding the entitlement programs. A smaller workforce will contribute to a growing deficit unless the programs are reformed.

A smaller workforce also hurts in other ways. Fewer workers means that the national economy will likely produce less. This is especially true in industries where automation is not efficient or possible. Fewer people also means fewer entrepreneurs to start new businesses. Taking the law of supply and demand into consideration, if fewer workers are available then wages will probably increase, making goods more expensive.

One way to solve the labor shortage problem is to allow more workers to immigrate. This is the strategy that Western Europe has used. That has led to new problems since Europe’s closest sources of unskilled migrants are North Africa and the Middle East. These predominantly Muslim immigrants are not as easily assimilated as Latinos are in the US. Still, increased immigration to the US would further stoke tensions among the many Americans who are concerned about immigration and its effect on American culture.

But, like or not, American culture is changing either way. Much like the climate, our culture has been constantly changing throughout our history. We started as English colonies but our culture has been altered radically by large waves of immigration from Ireland, Eastern Europe, slaves from Africa, and now Central America. There were also smaller waves from Asia and the Middle East. Even though the United States started with Englishmen, the largest ethnic group today is Americans of German descent. Each immigrant went into the melting pot and changed American culture subtly but permanently.

Even without increases to immigration to fill the shortages in the workforce, American culture will change. The birth rate data shows that white women are having fewer babies than minority women. There is also a sharp increase in the share of multiracial and multiethnic babies born in the United States. Any way you slice it, America is becoming less white and that will change the national culture.

A final possible effect of the declining birth rate is that America may ultimately lose its position as the world’s superpower. The ability to direct world events depends both on the manpower to commit troops in far-flung parts of the world as well as the financial wherewithal to support them. A declining birth rate affects both. Along with a smaller workforce, a smaller population means a smaller pool of potential military recruits. A shrinking economy would mean that the military would probably shrink as well, otherwise it would become increasingly burdensome on America’s shrinking tax base.

If there is any consolation in America’s birth rate problem, it’s that we aren’t alone. Our competitors on the world stage are having the same problem and face the same difficulties. Russia’s birth rate hit a 10-year low at 1.75 and the country’s population shrank last year even after accounting for immigration. In China, the birth rate is even worse at 1.62. Both countries are frantically trying to encourage their citizens to have more babies and China has even reversed its infamous one-child policy. The United States may need to find ways to change our culture to encourage more children as well.

Comments
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Oregun
Oregun

I think that other than defending it's citizens the primary function of government is to maintain an enviroment where families can prosper. The opposite of what they often do in practice. It is peoples culture, that would be the living out of their faith assumptions that is the primary cause of actual family prosperity. Having the right ideas provides a platform for growing families where economics is truly applied. The word translates house law. Psalm 127 and 128 are excellent applications of house law and prosperity of a life well lived.

perronepj
perronepj

When I worked as a consultant for DoD we tracked these trends across the world because it affects all the things mentioned in the article and therefore national security. The answers are not political or even cultural, they are theological. DoD didn't like the answer either because there is nothing they can do about it. God,s command to Adam and then repeated to Noah was to be fruitful and multiply. But for the most part we have all become Marxist believing that unless we are producing for the state we are not useful. Children are a burden because they interfere with our productivity and our self worth. No government policy will cause a change in heart.

HarmenB
HarmenB

Thanks for a thoughtful post, with many good remarks and observations.

Four additions from my side:

1.) It is not the end of the world of the population declines. With a bit of financial planning, flexibility and creativity, society can blossom as before. Japan is a great example of a land with a declining population, yet it's citizens keep enjoying an enviable way of life.

2.) Maybe it helps to look at declining birth rates as an indicator of deeper changes, changes that can be both good and bad.

It is good if women have fewer children because they want a fulfilling career of their own. It is bad if people would want more children, but feel they cannot afford it.

3.) In all this, let's not look too much at this from a national perspective. It is likely much more interesting and relevant to look at it from individual perspectives. Less "US world power status" thinking and more "How does that my niece of 25 or my neighbours - say they are just married, early 30s - see things?"

4.) If policies were needed, it seems more financial child support, affordable health care and affordable education have an impact. Countries such as France and Scandinavian countries may give insight here, but so do comparisons between US States and with Canadian provinces.

An interesting issue!

DriverZn
DriverZn

David, I normally agree with your work. Here I agree with your data but what is missing is the "Why is this happening".

First education and birth rate are highly correlated.

So as education improves, birthrate drops. That trend has been observed in basically every country. That is likely part of the variance state to state here.

The second is happiness and birth rate are somewhat correlated. The data here is harder to parse, but a decent summary is here.

@Spindletop below points out a good source of unhappiness. There are others, overcrowding, the sense of despair that your children will have no future, and just the thought of having to pay for their education.

"One of the most obvious aspects is the effect that fewer workers will have on entitlement programs"

Again while true this is tone deaf. It's basically "have more children to pay for old peoples socialist programs." aka the same old GOP voters demanding the young people not benefit from similar programs (free higher education or similar health care programs).

Spindletop
Spindletop

The issue is more economic than cultural. People in the middle class simply can't afford to have bigger families, and that will continue to be the case until something happens to reverse the trend of concentrating wealth among a relatively small group of people. I'm not saying the government has any business interfering with the free market, but eventually corporations will realize that a relentless focus on maximizing profits for shareholders at the expense of paying workers decent wages will lead to a decline in demand for their collective products and services. At some point (hopefully before it's too late) they'll realize they have a collective interest in making sure people on the bottom 80% of the income scale have enough money to live beyond basic subsistence levels. People who don't have money in their pockets can't buy things and decide not to have kids, further eroding the market for goods and services. Look at what has happened to the CEO-to-worker pay ratio over the past 20 years.