by Leo Thuman
The fertility rate in the United States is at an all-time low, according to a National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) report which came out last week. The agency, which falls under the oversight of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), confirmed that birth rates fell by 2 percent in 2018.
Since 2000, America has seen a troubling decrease in fertility. Most years, the number of births has teetered around four million, with the exception of a short-lived rally in the mid-2000s. This past decade, however, has been particularly unproductive. Although some years, such as 2017, have seen slight increases in births, the overall trend has been one of ever sharpening decreases in babies born — bottoming out this past year at only 3.5 million births. This is the lowest annual number since 1986, when the base population of the United States was considerably smaller.
For the past several decades, there has been an overabundance of media and academic hype about a supposed global issue of overpopulation. Studies such as the well-known 2014 one reported by Science magazine have attempted to dispute the consensus opinion among scholars that global population will level off in this century. Moreover, reports of overpopulation globally also seem to receive far more media exposure than America’s precipitously declining fertility, which is now well below replacement levels.
This is a real problem. Low fertility rates and consequent declines in population are linked to numerous social and economic dilemmas. Look no further than the examples of Japan and Germany.
In Japan, years of low fertility rates continue to pose dismal prospects for the country’s economy, with leading economists projecting that Japan’s future will be one of stagnation at best, and recession at worst. A rapidly aging population also poses looming issues for the country’s fiscal situation, healthcare, and housing. With less people paying taxes than collecting on them, Japan will eventually face the prospect of insolvent elder-care programs, long wait times, and shortages in care. Germany has also suffered a problematic labor shortage as its citizens increasingly retired. This has necessitated increased work-based migration from other parts of the world, which has in turn created other problems for German society.
However, it’s not necessary to look abroad to see the threat underpopulation poses to the United States. Low birth rates here already offer good reason for alarm. For example, economists have noted a high correlation between low birth rates and recessions — the last three major economic downturns were preceded by low-birth years. Much like it has in Japan, experts predict that sluggish population growth here will decrease the supply of labor and demand for goods, harming the well-being of the economy. It is also likely that work will become more stressful as population decreases: when there are fewer workers than needed, existing members of the workforce speculatively will work longer hours, as the Korean and Japanese situations indicate.
While prospects are dire, pro-family and human dignity-centered reforms are at least capable of ameliorating threats of underpopulation. For example, Germany has briskly implemented such policies and consequently boasted modest increases in birth rates, after drawing significant domestic and international attention for surpassing Japan as the world’s least fertile country.
Increasingly, conservatives in the United States are also taking a stronger lead on these initiatives. It is conceivable that a paid family leave plan, such as Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.), will make fatherhood and motherhood more feasible for young citizens. Making the Child Income Tax Credit more lucrative and bolstering child support programs across all fifty states are additional smaller reforms which could boost family formation.
By robustly advancing pro-family policies, conservatives should be able to counter the Left’s anti-birth policies, including their penchant for funding and expanding access to abortions. And given the most recent statistics, these efforts could not come a moment too soon.