Show Me the Evidence

In her latest Washington Post column Catherine Rampell expresses her concern about a declining U. S. birth rate:

The U.S. economy needs more kids.

Parents say they want more kids.

Yet the baby bust has gotten worse.

The general fertility rate — that is, the number of births per thousand women ages 15 to 44 — declined to 55.8 in 2020, according to new provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a record low for the United States. Birthrates declined for every racial and ethnic group, and nearly every age group.

and proposes her remedy:

First would be a suite of changes that make it easier for Americans to have more kids. They include providing greater income security, so parents can afford to have the number of children they want. Also, adapting workplaces and other parts of the safety net so parents or would-be parents who want to stay in the labor force can do so more easily.

President Biden’s families-related proposal would make progress on these fronts, by extending the temporary “child allowance” he recently signed into law, guaranteeing free or low-cost child care, and implementing paid family leave, among other programs. Changing the culture around work and making “greedy” workplaces friendlier to parents will be greater challenges, though the normalization of remote work arrangements over the past year may help.

But while these changes would make some parents’ lives less stressful, and perhaps induce some people on the margin to pop out more babies, they may not have much impact on overall fertility trends. Many countries with low birthrates have implemented explicitly pro-natal policies, such as greater access to child care or cash bonuses for having babies. They’ve generally been unsuccessful at lifting birthrates.

The other policy in the toolkit is immigration.

If the United States wants more working-age people to contribute to our economy, there are millions of strivers around the world ready and eager to pitch in. Indeed, immigrants and their children have been a key driver of population, economic and productivity growth in the not-so-distant past, but dwindling immigration is another reason population growth slowed so much in the 2010s.

I wish she would show me the evidence that either of those two strategies would address the problems she calls out at the beginning of her column. I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. The countries with the most generous family policies are Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia, and Portugal. If there is any correlation between those policies and having more children it is an inverse correlation. What those countries have in common are low birth rates and very high levels of ethnic homogeneity.

Let me offer a contrarian view. What we’re seeing now is the completely logical foreseeable consequence of

  • Children are less valuable economic assets than they used to be when by age 5 they could help out around the farm.
  • Raising children is increasingly expensive.
  • The social value of children isn’t what it used to be for women and having a job has a higher social value than it used to have.
  • It takes two incomes today to provide the standard of living that was provided by one 50 years ago.
  • The acceptability of abortion.
  • Millions of years of evolution have seen to it that people particularly women actually enjoy having children in their families.

Since I don’t see our doing anything about any of those factors let alone about all of them, I think it would be better for people to get used to the idea of fewer children.

And immigration as a solution? I learned something valuable many years ago that is apparently lost on Ms. Rampell. Many years ago I attended the birthday party of the child of some of our upper middle class friends. Unlike such parties when I was a kid each child in attendance was accompanied by his or her nanny—all women and mostly immigrants. As the party wore on I noticed the women becoming increasingly impatient. They wanted to go home to take care of their own children. That’s the point. Immigrants have children and needs, too. Being able to solve whatever problems a low birthrate produces through immigration is like the company that loses money on every sale trying to make it up in volume. My conclusion from that is that our immigration should be tailored more to people whose incomes will be able to pay for the care and education of their children. That means among other things that we need to abandon family reunification as a primary objective of our system of immigration.

2 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    Immigration is likely only a temporary solution anyway. Birthrates are falling worldwide. The global “rate of natural increase” is half of what it was in the 1970’s.

  • And that’s particularly true of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

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