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What (If Anything) Should We Do About The Rock-Bottom U.S. Fertility Rate?

Remember back when the U.S. fertility rate (Total Fertility Rate, or TFR) was tied for the lowest since these numbers have been tracked?

Yeah, the rate is now the lowest ever in American history – figures newly released by the Centers for Disease Control, with 2018 provisional data, show a further drop from 2017’s 1.7655 children per woman down to 1.728 children per women, a 2% drop.  By age, birth rates:

  • Dropped 7% for teenagers,
  • Dropped 4% for women aged 20-24,
  • Dropped 3% for women aged 25-29,
  • Dropped 1% for women aged 30-34,
  • Increased 1% for women aged 35-35,
  • Increased 2% for women aged 40-44, and
  • Was unchanged for women 45 and older.

Now, the TFR is calculated not by figuring out the number of children actual women have over their lifetimes (that’s “completed fertility”) but by looking at the rates for each age and working out a hypothetical “competed fertility” based on those patterns, so when the fertility rate began to drop from its 2007 peak of 2.12, researchers speculated that this was a temporary drop and that fertility rates would “catch up” over time as teens who had been dissuaded from parenthood had their babies as adults, and as families who were deterred by the recession likewise “caught up.”

But take a look at the historic fertility rates for the United States, via graphs created from the World Health Organization data:

Here’s the data from 1960:

It’s a pretty steep drop from the 1960s into what appears to be an overcorrection in the 1970s before a return back to “normal.”

The 1960 data obscures the later trends, though, so let’s look at it by excluding those high-fertility years and start at 1971 instead:

I’ll be honest: looking at this graph does not give me confidence that a TFR at or near the conventional “replacement rate” of 2.1 is the “normal” fertility rate for the United States, which we simply need to return to, for happy days (or demographically-sustainable days) to be here again.  What if our current fertility rate is a “normal” rate and the rate of the 1990s and early 2000s was the unusual rate?

For further comparison, here are the TFRs of France and Sweden, which are so often lauded for having solved the puzzle of creating just the right conditions, in terms of economy, society, and social welfare benefits, for women to hit that 2.1 target.

Whether there is indeed something to be learned from these countries I’ll address in a future article, but there’s a lot of fluctuation in these countries as well.

(Incidentally, one reads periodically that the fertility rates for European countries with high Muslim populations are “really” just due to the Muslims and that the birth rates for Christians/secular folk are quite a bit lower, and, indeed, per a 2017 Pew study, the TFR for Muslim French women is 2.9 vs. 1.9 for non-Muslim women for the period 2015 – 2020, that is, including a projection.  According to a second report, Muslims comprise 8.8% of the population of France, and are, on average younger than non-Muslims.)

So what do we do with this information?

There are, it seems to me, three ways to think about changing fertility rates in the United States:

  • “People really would like to have more children, and would do so if we changed our laws (providing for parental leave, child benefits, etc.) and culture (reversing the trend towards high-intensity parenting), so, for the sake of improving quality of life of Americans, we should do these things.”
  • “People are demonstrating with their childbearing choices that they’re really just not all that into having babies.  We should respect that and focus on the best sorts of policies for this new situation, whether that’s increasing immigration or intensifying robotics R&D to care for the aged.”
  • “There is no fixed preference with respect to the number of children, and no setback to quality of Americans’ quality of life if they have fewer children than in the past.  We can and should decide on the fertility rate that is best for the economy, society, and the environment, and establish policies that achieve it.”

Lyman Stone, a researcher on economics and demographics, has developed a concept which he calls the “Fertility Gap,” in which he measures the difference between survey results on Americans’ average desired family size and the actual number of children Americans have.  He develops this in, among other places, a lengthy article at the Institute for Family Studies website, “How Many Kids do Women Want?”

Now, one trouble is that there is no long-running study asking American women the question, “how many children would you like to have over your lifetime?” but only studies such as a Gallup poll and the General Social Survey that ask “What is the ideal number of children for a family to have?” and consistently find a number of about 2.5 for the past several decades; Stone defends treating these as equivalent both because in decades past, when there were surveys asking the former question, the numbers were similar, and because surveys from Europe produce similar answers for both these questions.  I do still have my doubts about the reliability of Stone’s approach, simply because it appears at least anecdotally that there are a growing number of people who are comfortable with the idea that it’s reasonable for them personally to have one or no children while other families have more to make up for the shortfall, and at the same time others who feel comfortable having larger families knowing they balance out smaller families/childless folk.

The notion that American women would have more children if only we remedied the financial costs to parenting has meant that support for government benefits for families is beginning to expand from progressives/Democrats to conservatives, though they tend to prefer child benefit programs that pay out regardless of parents’ work/child care decisions rather than simply subsidized childcare, such as, for instance, in a recent article in The American Conservative, “Reversing the Baby Bust,” though fiscal conservatives have historically been squeamish about both the cost of such benefits and worries that, to put it bluntly, the “wrong people” will be motivated by the cash benefits to have more children than they can responsibly care for.

But think about this:  we don’t know what the effect of an intensive effort to provide government benefits to families would be.  If the Gallup survey’s 2.5-ish ideal family size means that, following effective public policy changes, the American TFR would grow to that level, that would bring complaints by those worried about population size that it was overshooting the mark.  So, as with many such issues, there is no pat answer to the question.

What do you think?  You’re invited to comment at!

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