Don't Freak Out About Falling Fertility Rates

There's an easy way to make more Americans: immigration.


John Duarte Blend Images/Newscom

Lyman Stone, an economist at United States Department of Agriculture, is extremely worried about America's fertility rates. In a new Medium post, Stone highlights "the great baby bust of 2017" and warns that "fertility is falling faster than you realize."

But he fails to make a convincing case that recent fertility-rate declines are something the U.S. should panic about. Because even if recent trends are irreversible—and that's a big if—the U.S. is uniquely positioned to solve population problems via immigration.

Using the most recent data, Stone presents an interesting snapshot of American births in the infancy of the Trump era. In 2015, America's "total fertility rate" (TFR)—the number of children per woman projected by the end of their childbearing years if current age-specific birth rates hold—was 1.84. This dropped slightly to 1.82 last year, and was down to 1.77 for the first six months of 2017.

Other countries that have experienced similar drops—Canada and Japan in the 1970s, France in the 1970s and 1980s—have failed to get back to replacement-rate fertility of 2.1, notes Stone. Pro-natal policies can only do so much, and sometimes fail entirely (something Ron Bailey explored here last week).

Yet immigration has been able to combat fertility replacement rate problems in France. And Canada "managed to stave off serious population risk" thanks to its liberal immigration policies.

So why, if our population plummets, can America not simply import more people? Even if our reputation has suffered some recent blows, there are still no shortage of people from all around the world clamoring to come here. Immigration from pretty much any target group we desire—including women of child-bearing age or families that already have young children—could easily be ramped up should our population require it.

In a follow-up post, Stone admits that immigration can solve some fertility-replacement problems, but suggests that because immigration has been down lately, "the U.S. is likely to have underwhelming amounts of immigration in the future." Thus, "this lever just won't get you as much change as it used to" and isn't a viable solution.

Stone treats immigration levels as some sort of immutable trend, rather than a direct result of governmental policies. Changing these policies may be politically difficult, but it's preferable to the total cultural and societal preference overhaul Stone recommends. And should our demographics become truly dire, immigration reform is likely to pick up steam.

Demographic doom is far from certain. As Bailey pointed out, "fertility is falling because people are making trade-offs between having more children and more education, more career advancement, more disposable income, and more leisure," as well, "so [people] can invest more in helping the children they do have to lead successful lives. Falling fertility is a sign that increased wealth and technological progress have given increasing numbers of people greater freedom to decide if, when, how, and with whom they want to reproduce."

This is a good thing for the American economy and promises foreseen and unseen positive effects that could offset the negatives of a depressed fertility rate. In terms of fertility downturns, America has seen much worse. While he worries we will never recover from our fertility recession, Stone presents fertility fluctuation data that is fairly normal in modern times.

We all know about the mid-20th Century baby boom that reversed 130 years of near-steadily falling fertility rates. But after rising to 3.27 in 1947, the total fertility rate dropped down to 3.09 in 1950. Then it shot up to 3.77 in 1957—almost on par with 1900-1901 levels—before falling below three in 1965.

By 1976, the total fertility rate was down to 1.74, an all-time American low. But then things started to reverse course slowly and choppily throughout the 1980s, climbing back over two in 1990. Then five more years of fertility rate declines and a decade of rate creep, reaching 2.12 in 2007—the highest rate seen since 1972. By 2010, however, the rate was back down to 1.92 and has dropped slightly or remained steady each year since.

If the past 100 years are any indication, a sharp fertility rate drop in one year, or a string of decreases, does not mean an irreversible trend. Nor does it portend doom.

For more on America's cycle of under- and over-population hysteria, check out this great Kerry Howley piece from Reason's archives.