Dealing With the Non-Crisis In Fertility

Sometimes it’s in order to raise alarms about the sustainability of entitlement programs, and sometimes it’s just to scourge the “selfishness” of liberals and feminists. But a lot of conservatives these days really do get themselves agitated over an alleged crisis in U.S. fertility rates. One writer, Jonathan Last, has a much-discussed book out on the subject. And at TNR, Ruy Teixeira thinks it worth a sound refutation:

According to Last, fertility decline will inevitably lead to population shrinkage, which in turn will inevitably doom us to economic stagnation and social breakdown. In fact, he says, ongoing fertility decline has already saddled us with slow economic growth since the 1970s.

If Last’s claims sound hysterical and overwrought, that is because they are. Let’s start with his dire predictions about population shrinkage. It is true that fertility is lower now, at 1.93 children per women, than the standard replacement rate of 2.1. But it’s also higher than it was in the mid-’70s, when it bottomed out at 1.74. Indeed, the fertility rate has mostly risen since that period, with the exception of several years in the mid-’90s and the years of the Great Recession. And population has not gone down—it is up over 50 percent since 1970. The Census Bureau does project that the fertility rate will diminish, but only by a modest .09 over the next 50 years. And while the fertility rate is likely to remain below the replacement rate for the next 50 years, the Census Bureau expects us to add another 100 million people by 2060 due to immigration and “demographic momentum.” (Despite sub-replacement fertility rates, a relatively large proportion of the population will be in prime reproductive years for decades to come.) So much for population collapse.

Even if Last were right, notes Teixeira, his standard-brand conservative prescription of child tax credits against payroll tax liability is hardly only or most effective remedy for insufficient child-bearing: how about paid family lead and government-guaranteed quality child care? It seems inconveniencing private businesses or expanding government represent too high a cost to pay, and/or to not involve the requisite return to “traditional family values” that is the not-so-hidden agenda behind some of these conservative natalist efforts.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.