The U.S. Birthrate Has Dropped Again. The Pandemic May Be Accelerating the Decline.


88
14 shares, 88 points
The U.S. Birthrate Has Dropped Again. The Pandemic May Be Accelerating the Decline.
michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

[music]

A few days ago, the U.S. government revealed that the country’s population is growing at the slowest rate in nearly a century. Today, Astead Herndon spoke with our colleague Sabrina Tavernise about why that is and just how profoundly it could shape America’s future.

It’s Tuesday, May 4.

astead herndon

So Sabrina, when the U.S. government finished counting the American people this time in the census, it found that the American population was growing really slowly. That was a bit surprising to me personally. What’s going on here?

sabrina tavernise

So this is a very interesting and relatively new thing for the United States. We have this extremely slow population increase, which is different for the United States. The United States usually grows really quickly. What we saw with the census data was the second-slowest decade for population growth in American history. That is since 1790, when the United States government started taking the census. So that’s really surprising. We had known that there was some slowdown for some time, but this census data really tells us this is really the new normal in the United States.

astead herndon

So population is growing at a slower rate. How do we explain this?

sabrina tavernise

So Astead, there are two forces that make up population growth. One is immigration and the other is births. Then, of course, there are deaths. So you put all of these things together, and that’s what makes a population grow. And so for the past decade or so, we’ve seen a real slowdown in immigration. And there are a number of reasons for that. A lot fewer people coming from Mexico. That’s in part because the Mexican economy is a bit better, the birth rate in Mexico itself has gone way down so there’s less pressure for people to come to the United States to work. But the real interesting part of what’s going on and the real mystery is the birth rate.

[music]

So the birth rate began to decline in 2008, during the financial crisis. And we would expect that because birth rates tend to decline when countries have financial crises, when they’re in economic distress. People put off having babies. But usually, once the economy starts to pick up again, the birth rate goes back up. And that’s precisely what demographers were expecting to happen in 2009, ‘10, and ‘11.

But something very strange happened, which was the birth rate kept going down. It went down and down and down. And no one could understand why. So it used to be that there were 2.1 children born to every American woman. That was before 2008. That’s exactly enough to replace their parents when they die. That’s called replacement-level fertility. But now it’s 1.7 children per woman, which is below the rate of replacement.

astead herndon

So if we didn’t have any immigration at all, our population would actually be declining.

sabrina tavernise

Eventually, yes. And that has opened up this whole new line of inquiry. Demographers are asking, why is this happening?

astead herndon

Well, let’s get into those ideas. Why do folks think— why do demographers, economists, think that the birth rate is declining?

sabrina tavernise

So the most straightforward theory right now is that it’s about the economy. So essentially you have this large group of American women, younger millennials, women in their 20s, who are putting off having children. And it’s not because they don’t want to have kids. They do want to have kids. We know that from survey work that’s been done. But they just don’t feel like they can afford to have kids.

And if you think about it, this group of women, they’re graduating and going out into the world as adults into a really different economy than their parents did. So they have huge amounts of student debt. That wasn’t the case in the past. Home prices and rents are just skyrocketing that’s also very different than what their parents had. And there’s also been 40 years of economic inequality in this country. And that is essentially made a very, very difficult job market and life for people in the lower middle classes who are trying to make it on essentially low-wage work, cobbling together a couple of different jobs.

Schedules are incredibly erratic, which makes it very difficult to plan around a daycare pick-up. And the other driver is that there’s a very weak social safety net in the United States. Unlike other countries, it has a lot of holes. So think about it— no parental leave, no sick leave, extremely difficult to get a child-care subsidy. So essentially what you have is this whole group of young women looking out there into the economy, looking at their lives, and essentially saying, no way can I afford to have a kid right now. It’s too expensive. I can’t afford it.

astead herndon

So you’re describing young women waiting. But when they do decide to have children eventually, are they still having the same number of children that they would have had before or not?

sabrina tavernise

So the short answer is it’s really too early to tell. We know that, when women do delay having kids, they tend to have fewer kids because they start later. We do also know that older millennials have been having kids. It has not been them forgoing having children altogether. But we really don’t know what will happen with the big bulk of this generation, whether this is a delay or forgoing altogether.

astead herndon

OK, so what’s going on with millennials, then, does not seem to explain the entirety of this trend.

sabrina tavernise

No, it doesn’t. But there is this other theory that goes beyond economics. If you look at the data, you see that the absolute biggest decline has been among teens ages 15 to 19. It’s declined by around 80 percent over the past 20 years. And that’s really interesting, because those are people who really aren’t quite yet in the labor force. So what is motivating them? Why have teenagers practically stopped having pregnancies? That’s a really big change. And so when we look at that, what we see is a couple of reasons. Again, these are theories.

One is that contraception use has gone up. So that’s a behavioral change for teens. That didn’t used to be the case in the 1980s, 1990s. Another is that teenagers are actually having sex less. There’s a whole kind of new area of thinking and research and work about how social media has changed us, how smartphones have changed us. Kids are spending more time online. There’s pornography people are using they have much easier access to. And then another idea about this very young group is that perhaps there’s something good going on for them about the American economy and the way they see their futures, that these young women feel like there’s a real reason to hold off having children because there’s a real chance for them to make it to go to community college, to come out in a place where it makes sense to not have their baby until they’re 28 or 29 instead of 21 and 22, which it had always been.

So these are obviously really good things. Public health officials spent decades trying to convince young women not to have babies in their teens. Teen pregnancy was a whole public health problem that people were trying to solve. And they essentially solved it. I mean, it’s, for all intents and purposes, dramatically declined. And women are taking more control over their lives and over childbearing. And when you look at the rates of unintended pregnancy, those are down really dramatically. So that gives us another clue as to what’s going on here, that there’s some behavioral change as well as the economics. There’s something else going on.

astead herndon

OK, so you’re describing changes that happen among millennial women and also women who are younger than millennials. So that spans from teenagers all the way through women in their 30s. But I’m also interested in a different slice of that population— immigrants. Are birth rates declining among that population as well?

sabrina tavernise

So Astead, this is very interesting because, in fact, the birthrate is declining most precipitously among precisely that group. So for a long time, the kind of story about what was going on was that immigrants who were coming in were having many more children. And to a certain extent that was true. Women who were coming from Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s and even in the early 2000s, they were coming from families where there were six and seven children in the family. And they were arriving to the United States. And they were having more babies and having babies younger. So this was really boosting the birth rate a lot. But what happened was their children changed. Their children were born in the United States. And they acted a lot more like everyone else who was born in the United States, which meant they had far fewer children and later. So this is a huge change from the immigrant generation to their native-born children.

astead herndon

OK, so many women are delaying childbirth as an economic calculation or as just a general life calculation. That seems to make total sense.

sabrina tavernise

It does seem to make sense. But here’s the thing. When you zoom out and compare the U.S. to other developed countries, it actually gets a lot more confusing. Because actually this is starting to happen in all rich countries around the world. Most developed countries are seeing this decline in the birth rate— Germany, Spain, Italy, France, lots of countries in Europe and also countries in East Asia, South Korea, Japan. And so it’s very confusing because these countries have really different economies than the United States and these countries have really different social safety nets.

The Scandinavian countries have very strong social safety nets. But yet this birth rate is also dropping in these places. So what is going on that these countries with, certainly, stronger social safety nets and, to some extent, better economies, are also experiencing the same thing. So one of the working hypotheses is that this, fundamentally, is the place where women want to be that they want fewer children, that they want precisely the number of children that they are actually having, that as time has gone on, they’ve become more attached to the labor market, they’ve developed careers, they have rising pay in relation to men. And that means that they are wanting to have babies at times that makes sense for them in the labor market. So one of the arguments is that this is simply going to be the new normal for modern societies in which women are more equal with men.

astead herndon

OK, Sabrina, so what I am hearing is the common reporter frustration that we have a lot of theories as to why this is happening but we don’t know for sure why it’s happening.

sabrina tavernise

Yeah, that’s right. There’s not a lot of certainty. Demographers will be really quick to tell you we’re really just in uncharted waters right now. We haven’t seen this trend before, ever, in the United States. And we’ve only seen it in the very, very early stages in Europe and in East Asia. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, how worried should we be?

[music]
astead herndon

OK, Sabrina, how worried should we be about these falling birth rates?

sabrina tavernise

So Astead, as usual, the answer is it’s complicated. But the fact is a number of economists and demographers have raised some pretty troubling alarms.

astead herndon

What are those?

sabrina tavernise

They start with what might happen with the economy. So if you have a really, really slow-growing population, that means, at some point in the pretty near future, you’re going to have a much smaller workforce. And that could be, potentially, a real problem for economic growth. It’s harder to keep up with big, growing, booming economies like China. And there are fewer workers to support older Americans who rely on social security, on Medicare, Medicaid. There are not as many workers to pay into the tax system to support this much larger population of older people.

astead herndon

So to think of our society as kind of a pyramid, it requires a base of people paying in to support those at the top. If we don’t have enough babies, if we aren’t having enough young people, that pyramid gets messed up.

sabrina tavernise

Exactly. Like flip the pyramid. So you have this kind of tiny, spindly bottom trying to support everybody at the top. And that becomes very difficult. Americans are living much, much longer lives. And they are living at the end of their life with lots of care from caretakers who tend to be disproportionately young, disproportionately female. That is also a concern— who will take care of these people? Who will take care of the mostly-older Americans once we get down the road into this demographic future?

But the economic effects also kind of trickle down into the culture. So in places that are already experiencing this in an advanced way in the United States, like a lot of counties in New England and the Plains states, some people living in communities like this do feel like there is a sense of loss or of sadness. I say this because I am from a little town in Western Massachusetts that has had a lot of these same problems. It’s an aging population. My parents still live there. They’re almost in their 80s. And it’s really hard to get someone to come shovel out their walk because there’s not the large population of young people that there used to be. My little grammar school closed, I believe, three years ago because there just weren’t enough kids to fill it. And I think that some people have this sense that growth means vitality, that getting bigger is good and better, and that decline is, in some sense, kind of signifying a death or a weakness.

astead herndon

Well, when you put it like that, I mean, both in the economic sense and in the personal sense— there’s the schools closing, the folks without the ability to shovel out their driveways— it definitely feels as if this trend is a bad trend if it is one that sustains. Are policymakers already thinking about this issue?

sabrina tavernise

There’s some thinking going on around the edges of this. But it’s a very big problem. And it has implications for all parts of the economy and all parts of American society. And the real question at this point is whether policymakers are going to try to stop it or reverse it or adapt and embrace it.

astead herndon

Hmm. Well, that’s interesting. What are the options on that front? What could policymakers do to actually reverse the declining birth rates?

sabrina tavernise

So there are a few things. One is we see, in Russia and in Hungary, populist leaders rewarding women for having more children. And in some sense, the fact that the United States right now is getting more serious about patching up the social safety net is some nod to the fact that, yes, women need more support. So you could go directly to the issue of the birth rate itself and try to make conditions more advantageous for women to have more children more often.

But the other piece of this which we need to remember is, of course, immigration. That is the other big driver of population growth. And immigration has gone down substantially over the past 10 years. But that is a policy decision. The government could open up immigration to many more people. Now, as we in the United States, that is quite politically fraught and that is potentially a big fight. So it’s not so easy as to just turn on or off a spigot. But in terms of the economy and growth and what the future is for the population, immigration is an absolutely critical piece of that.

astead herndon

So those are the options to reversing the declining birth rate. What are the options of adapting to that reality and basically living with an aging and changing population?

sabrina tavernise

So if the trend sticks, policymakers are going to have a lot of work to do to plan for how we care for this much larger older population. That inverted pyramid we talked about, where we’re going to have many more older people than younger people, that will continue to be true unless this trend reverses. And that’s going to be really expensive. So we have to figure that out. We have to plan for it. And it’s really, really difficult. So the other piece of this is the economy. If we choose to accept this and to adapt, that might mean accepting that we’re just not going to be the major market superpower that we had been. And that adaptation, that might be hard to swallow. America’s superpower status and super economic status is pretty fundamental to how the country sees itself in the global stage.

astead herndon

Both these options seem pretty fraught. I mean, what you’re explaining for either incentivizing new births or in terms of adapting to a declining birth rate, both those options seem like they require real societal restructuring. Those are big things. So how do we decide which one to choose? For example, is there any reason that a declining birth rate could be a good thing and that it’s actually preferable for us to continue down the road with this trend?

sabrina tavernise

So first of all, it could be good for the climate. Climate change is happening all around us. And a smaller population could be a more sustainable way to live on the Earth. And that is something that people are talking about a lot. Also, in the economy, a slightly smaller population of workers would give workers themselves more clout and more ability to bargain, to have higher wages. Another example is, for the next generation of children, fewer children and families could lead to more investment in each individual child— more likely that that child will be able to go to college, more tutoring time, more invested in each kid.

astead herndon

Sabrina, personally, I never thought much about America’s birth rate. And I think a lot of folks are like that. But what you seem to be describing is that those issues we do think about often, things like immigration and health care and climate change, that all of those are actually a part of this growth-rate question and that doing something about the birth rate will require thinking about all of these issues all at once?

sabrina tavernise

Yeah, that’s right, Astead. I mean, it seems like just a nerdy little number. But the truth is it’s incredibly important because it touches on almost every aspect of American life. I mean, think about it— immigration, the social safety net, health insurance, hospitals, elder care, the role of government, how large it should be. I mean, these are huge arguments in this country and they have been for a long time. And the problem is we as Americans have gotten unused to thinking of ourselves as one group. It’s much less we and much more I. We’ve become tribal in a way that will really complicate collective decision-making on these really, really important issues. So that is potentially a very serious problem because we are barreling toward a very fundamental change in American society. And it is going to take all of our collective effort to solve this problem.

astead herndon

Thank you so much for your time.

sabrina tavernise

Thank you, Astead.

[music]
michael barbaro

Here’s what else you need to know today. The Times reports that the F.D.A. is preparing to authorize the use of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine in adolescents 12 to 15 years old by early next week. That would a crucial new phase in the U.S. vaccination campaign, since immunizing children is considered essential to limiting the spread of the virus. And—

archived recording (andrew cuomo)

Today is a milestone for New York State and a significant moment of transition.

michael barbaro

On Monday officials from three neighboring states, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, said they would allow many businesses to fully reopen on May 19, from restaurants and offices to theaters and gyms, and said they were acting together because their economies are deeply interconnected.

archived recording (andrew cuomo)

We live in a tri-state area. We say the restaurants are open in Connecticut but not in New York, you’ll have New Yorkers driving to Connecticut, you’ll have New Yorkers driving to New Jersey. The coordination is important.

michael barbaro

But there were caveats. In New York, for instance, businesses will still have to abide by the federal government’s six-foot social distancing rules unless they require workers and customers to provide proof that they are vaccinated or that they have tested negative for the virus.

Finally, President Biden said he would allow about 62,000 refugees into the U.S. over the next six months, reversing a limit of 15,000 put in place by President Trump. A few weeks ago, Biden had said he would maintain the 15,000 limit, drawing criticism from Democratic lawmakers and advocates for refugees, and prompting the White House to change course.

Today’s episode was produced by Luke Vander Ploeg and Eric Krupke. It was edited by Paige Cowett and engineered by Chris Wood.

[music]

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

Author: Sabrina Tavernise
This post originally appeared on NYT > U.S. News


0 Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.