Amer­i­can Fer­til­ity Headed to All-time Low

Starkville Daily News - - FORUM -

In 1957, 4.3 mil­lion ba­bies were born in the United States. In 2017, 60 years later, the num­ber was 3,853,472. That’s an 11 per­cent de­cline, in a na­tion whose pop­u­la­tion has nearly dou­bled over those six decades. And though there are a few days left in 2018, the num­ber for this year is sure to be lower.

That’s the dom­i­nant find­ing from the thor­ough — and alarm­ing — re­port “De­clin­ing Fer­til­ity in Amer­ica” by Ly­man Stone of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and the In­sti­tute for Fam­ily Stud­ies.

In re­cent years, de­mo­graphic jour­nal­ists have fo­cused on sliv­ers of the pop­u­la­tion — the in­creas­ing per­cent­ages of His­pan­ics and Asians, the de­cline in births to teenage moth­ers, low birth rates in high-cost coastal metropoli­tan ar­eas. Stone looks at the larger pic­ture, that of to­tal pop­u­la­tion, and finds that “the specter of low fer­til­ity, and ul­ti­mately of de­clin­ing pop­u­la­tion, has come to Amer­ica.”

That’s a dif­fer­ent pic­ture from that of a decade ago. Then Amer­i­can birthrates hov­ered around, and some­times just over, re­place­ment level. That was a vivid con­trast with sub­stan­tially be­low-re­place­ment-level birthrates in most of Europe and Ja­pan.

Those birthrates were buoyed up­ward by im­mi­grant moth­ers, af­ter a quar­ter cen­tury of mass mi­gra­tion from Latin Amer­ica, es­pe­cially Mex­ico. But Mex­i­can mi­gra­tion fell to­ward zero in the 2007-09 re­ces­sion, and births to im­mi­grants in the U.S. sharply de­clined, too.

Some Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing many Don­ald Trump fans, find that good news. It sug­gests that a lower per­cent­age of ba­bies are born to moth­ers in dis­ad­van­taged house­holds.

And just about ev­ery­one, as Stone notes, takes the con­tin­u­ing sharp de­cline in births to teenage moth­ers as good news, too, con­sid­er­ing that such chil­dren have tended to suf­fer neg­a­tive out­comes.

But the neg­a­tive out­comes of in­creas­ing in­fer­til­ity and even­tual pop­u­la­tion de­cline have even greater im­pli­ca­tions. To put it bluntly: Who is go­ing to pay for So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care when there are fewer work­ing-age adults pay­ing taxes for ev­ery old­ster re­ceiv­ing ben­e­fits? Wel­fare states as­sume an expanding pop­u­la­tion, and Amer­ica’s po­ten­tial par­ents don’t seem to be pro­vid­ing one any­more. Why?

Stone rules out one cause: Sur­veys show that women want more chil­dren than they’re hav­ing. That was prob­a­bly not the case, or less so, when Amer­i­can’s fer­til­ity rate dropped this low in the mid­dle 1970s.

The cul­prit this time is some­thing that scarcely ex­isted then: col­lege stu­dent loans. The top item on Stone’s list of five causes is “in­creased young adult debt ser­vice costs due to stu­dent loans.” Num­ber two is “de­creas­ing young adult home­own­er­ship” due to higher prices and — here it is again — “stu­dent loans.” Num­ber three is “in­creas­ing years spent ac­tively en­rolled in ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions, which tends to re­duce birth rates dra­mat­i­cally.”

Govern­ment ef­forts to en­cour­age higher ed­u­ca­tion have back­fired for many in­tended ben­e­fi­cia­ries. Non-grad­u­ates still have debt. Grad­u­ates with po­lit­i­cally cor­rect de­grees can’t find jobs. Col­lege costs have been in­flated by ad­min­is­tra­tive bloat and coun­try club cam­puses. “(T)he en­tire ed­u­ca­tional com­plex is presently struc­tured in such a way as to dis­cour­age fam­ily for­ma­tion for young adults,” Stone says.

The re­sult is “de­layed mar­riage.” This “changed mar­i­tal com­po­si­tion ex­plains the vast ma­jor­ity of changes in Amer­i­can fer­til­ity over the past 10 or 20 years,” Stone writes. And though he doesn’t men­tion it, the in­creas­ing num­ber of non-col­lege whites who never marry surely ex­plains some of the rest.

What are pol­i­cy­mak­ers do­ing to re­spond to this abrupt de­mo­graphic chal­lenge? Ap­prox­i­mately noth­ing. Stone notes that the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Medi­care’s ac­tu­ar­ies have not “even pub­lished stress-test sce­nar­ios of long-term fer­til­ity at 1.5 or 1.6” — just be­low the cur­rent 1.7 — “an in­cred­i­ble col­lec­tive fail­ure of fore­sight by al­most all the eco­nomic bod­ies whose job it is to an­tic­i­pate this kind of prob­lem.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, the one politi­cian who has worked stren­u­ously to ad­dress such prob­lems and at one point got all his Repub­li­can col­leagues to go along with en­ti­tle­ment re­form, has just de­liv­ered his farewell speech. House Repub­li­cans will be in the mi­nor­ity next month, and with no ap­petite for tak­ing up the is­sue again, es­pe­cially since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has promised to leave en­ti­tle­ments en­tirely in place and no sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Demo­cratic of­fice­hold­ers seeks to give up what they con­sider one of their party’s chief po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tages.

It’s quite a con­trast with the late 1990s, when Amer­i­can fer­til­ity was higher and Bill Clin­ton and Newt Gin­grich were work­ing on en­ti­tle­ment re­form un­til the Mon­ica Lewin­sky scan­dal broke.

Just an­other re­minder that his­tory is not al­ways a story of progress.

Michael Barone is a se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst for the Washington Ex­am­iner, res­i­dent fel­low at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and long­time co-au­thor of The Almanac of Amer­i­can Politics.

MICHAEL BARONE

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