In 1957, 4.3 million babies were born in the United States. In 2017, 60 years later, the number was 3,853,472. That’s an 11 percent decline in a nation whose population has nearly doubled over those six decades. And though there are a few days left in 2018, the number for this year is sure to be lower.
That’s the dominant finding from the thorough — and alarming — report “Declining Fertility in America” by Lyman Stone of the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.
In recent years, demographic journalists have focused on slivers of the population — the increasing percentages of Hispanics and Asians, the decline in births to teenage mothers, low birth rates in high-cost coastal metropolitan areas. Stone looks at the larger picture, that of total population, and finds that “the specter of low fertility, and ultimately of declining population, has come to America.”
That’s a different picture from that of a decade ago. Then American birthrates hovered around, and sometimes just over, replacement level. That was a vivid contrast with substantially below-replacement-level birthrates in most of Europe and Japan.
Those birthrates were buoyed upward by immigrant mothers, after a quarter century of mass migration from Latin America, especially Mexico. But Mexican migration fell toward zero in the 2007-09 recession, and births to immigrants in the U.S. sharply declined, too.
Some Americans, including many Donald Trump fans, find that good news. It suggests that a lower percentage of babies are born to mothers in disadvantaged households.
And just about everyone, as Stone notes, takes the continuing sharp decline in births to teenage mothers as good news, too, considering that such children have tended to suffer negative outcomes.
But the negative outcomes of increasing infertility and eventual population decline have even greater implications. To put it bluntly: Who is going to pay for Social Security and Medicare when there are fewer working-age adults paying taxes for every oldster receiving benefits? Welfare states assume an expanding population, and America’s potential parents don’t seem to be providing one anymore. Why?
Stone rules out one cause: Surveys show that women want more children than they’re having. That was probably not the case, or less so, when American’s fertility rate dropped this low in the middle 1970s.
The culprit this time is something that scarcely existed then: college student loans. The top item on Stone’s list of five causes is “increased young adult debt service costs due to student loans.” Number two is “decreasing young adult homeownership” due to higher prices and — here it is again — “student loans.” Number three is “increasing years spent actively enrolled in educational institutions, which tends to reduce birth rates dramatically.”
Government efforts to encourage higher education have backfired for many intended beneficiaries. Nongraduates still have debt. Graduates with politically correct degrees can’t find jobs. College costs have been inflated by administrative bloat and country club campuses. “(T)he entire educational complex is presently structured in such a way as to discourage family formation for young adults,” Stone says.
The result is “delayed marriage.” This “changed marital composition explains the vast majority of changes in American fertility over the past 10 or 20 years,” Stone writes. And though he doesn’t mention it, the increasing number of non-college whites who never marry surely explains some of the rest.
What are policymakers doing to respond to this abrupt demographic challenge? Approximately nothing. Stone notes that the Congressional Budget Office, the Social Security Administration and Medicare’s actuaries have not “even published stress-test scenarios of long-term fertility at 1.5 or 1.6” — just below the current 1.7 — “an incredible collective failure of foresight by almost all the economic bodies whose job it is to anticipate this kind of problem.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, the one politician who has worked strenuously to address such problems and at one point got all his Republican colleagues to go along with entitlement reform, has just delivered his farewell speech. House Republicans will be in the minority next month, and with no appetite for taking up the issue again, especially since President Donald Trump has promised to leave entitlements entirely in place and no significant number of Democratic officeholders seeks to give up what they consider one of their party’s chief political advantages.
It’s quite a contrast with the late 1990s, when American fertility was higher and Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were working on entitlement reform until the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.
Just another reminder that history is not always a story of progress.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.