Low Birthrate and the Demographic Winter

demographic-winterThe Washington Post published a recent article entitled The U.S. fertility rate just hit a historic low. Why some demographers are freaking out. I’m going to comment on the parts of it that I find interesting, along with a few related articles.

The number of women giving birth has been declining for years and just hit a historic low. According to provisional 2016 population data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, the number of births fell 1 percent from a year earlier, bringing the general fertility rate to 62.0 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. The trend is being driven by a decline in birthrates for teens and 20-somethings. The birthrate for women in their 30s and 40s increased — but not enough to make up for the lower numbers in their younger peers.

The report they are referencing is Births: Provisional Data for 2016.

A country’s birthrate is among the most important measures of demographic health. The number needs to be within a certain range, called the “replacement level,” to keep a population stable so that it neither grows nor shrinks. If too low, there’s a danger that we wouldn’t be able to replace the aging workforce and have enough tax revenue to keep the economy stable.

Good to know, but then the article completely fails to say what that rate is. According to Wikipedia, in developed countries sub-replacement fertility is any rate below approximately 2.1 children born per woman. The Post’s article unhelpfully quotes the basic fertility rate from the report. The replacement rate must be compared with the total fertility rate, which according to the report has fallen to 1.818, a number far below the replacement rate.

Countries such as France and Japan that have low birthrates have put pro-family policies into place to try to encourage couples to have babies.

As has Russia. In all cases I’m aware of, these programs have propped up the rates, but are nowhere near being able to return the countries who’ve adopted them to the replacement birthrate. According to the World Bank, France’s total fertility rate in 2015 was 2.0, Japan’s was 1.5, and Russia’s was 1.8. Clearly these government programs are not working well.

The millennial generation [are] much less likely to have babies, at least so far. Some experts think millennials are just postponing parenthood while others fear they’re choosing not to have children at all.

Even if they are choosing merely to delay, it isn’t good news for the birthrate. The longer women wait to have children, the fewer children they have.

The Week takes a more alarmist point of view: America’s birth rate is now a national emergency.

Most of [the decrease] is due to people getting married later and choosing to have fewer children… People’s willingness to have children is not only a sign of confidence in the future, but… a signal that people are willing to commit to the most enduring responsibility on Earth, which is raising a child.

Interpreting the same data, the author draws a conclusion (that the cause is women choosing to marry later and have fewer children), unlike the Post’s writer, who merely states that the trend was driven by decline in birthrates for women in their teens and 20s.

Today we see the problems wrought by the decline in productive populations all over the industrialized world, where polities are ripping each other to shreds over how to pay for various … entitlements, especially for old people… They are ruled by the same ruthless math: The fewer young, productive people you have to pay for entitlements for old, unproductive people, the steeper the bill for the entire society becomes. This basic problem is strangling Europe’s economies.

We have this problem in the short term due to the post World War II baby boom. Europe’s solution, to import massive numbers of immigrants from the third world to prop up her declining populations, has come with it’s own set of problems. Japan, which refuses to open its doors, saw its population decline by almost a percentage point between 2010 and 2015, the first such decline since World War II.

In contemporary America, 40 percent of women have fewer children than they want to.

Interesting. Why would that be? Perhaps men aren’t wanting to have as many children?

And there are plenty of policies that could help close that gap, whether from the left or from the right. Not just pro-maternity policies, but also policies that encourage healthy child-rearing, like child tax credits, family savings accounts, and tax-free children savings accounts. Or education reforms that would make fewer parents feel that they have to pony up for private school to give their kids a decent shot at life. Perhaps one of the biggest things we could do is to reduce the countless state and local regulations that make housing expensive.

As I stated above, these kinds of policies haven’t made much difference elsewhere. In Japan, where the governments offered cash incentives to couples having children (of $1684 in Tokyo), the fertility rate rose to 1.46 in 2015, slightly up from the previous rate of 1.42 in 2014. Russia pays $9,200 to women who would have a second child. Though many countries have financial incentives to encourage people to have children—tax deductions, family support programs, bonuses for children—fertility rates have been declining in almost every industrialized country.

One more excerpt. This one explains why traditional conservatives are worried about these trends:

Susana A. Mendoza, the [Illinois] state comptroller, says the unpaid bills top $15 billion and has warned leaders that she foresees “unmanageable financial strains” starting in July. Along with unpaid bills and a longstanding fight over education funding, the pension system is among the most underfunded in the nation. Illinois also has one of the most explicit constitutional pension guarantees of any state, which makes solving the problem more complicated.

While I can believe that Illinois has mismanaged its pension plan (we are talking about something run by a government, after all), it’s likely more than a little unfair to blame it all on the politicians. The demographic winter is coming!

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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