Is low fertility America’s problem?

Originally published on

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

An essay by Jonathan Last in the Wall Street Journal is getting some people talking about fertility. He writes about the United States, “The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.”

The essay doesn’t actually provide any specific problems caused by low fertility. Supporting retired people is the most obvious challenge. But the closest Last comes to describing the actual consequences of low fertility for the U.S. is this, which is based on the experiences of other countries:

Low-fertility societies don’t innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don’t invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.

I wouldn’t put these vague issues at the top of the list of America’s problems, but they are worth considering. Rather than try to increase birth rates, I would rather focus on making things work with fewer children, which might have the positive side effect of improving the lives of children. It’s a good conversation to have.

But there are three problems with the piece I’ll mention:

1. Fertility in the U.S. isn’t falling much.

The total fertility rate (births per average woman in her lifetime) is about what it was three decades ago. The scary drop over the last several years is apparently due to the recession and looks like it’s bottoming out. (In fact, as recently as 2009 I could write, quite reasonably, of the “unmistakable trend” toward higher fertility — look at the increase from 1976 to 2008.)


2. U.S. fertility is still pretty high

The U.S. has the highest fertility among major rich countries. Many of the countries above the U.S. on the following list have tried hard to get their populations to have more children, for some of the reasons Land suggests. It mostly doesn’t work. Here are the 2012 total fertility rates for a range of countries, from CIA estimates. I don’t think I missed any rich countries with higher fertility than the U.S.


3. The one-child policy didn’t cause China’s low fertility rate

This is Last’s dramatic introduction:

For more than three decades, Chinese women have been subjected to their country’s brutal one-child policy. Those who try to have more children have been subjected to fines and forced abortions. Their houses have been razed and their husbands fired from their jobs. As a result, Chinese women have a fertility rate of 1.54. Here in America, white, college-educated women—a good proxy for the middle class—have a fertility rate of 1.6. America has its very own one-child policy. And we have chosen it for ourselves.

But this contributes to the unfortunate impression that birth rates primarily respond to government policies. Except in draconian cases (which does include many aspects of the one-child policy), that’s not the issue: Fertility is mostly about economics and culture.

Here’s China’s total fertility rate, as estimated by the World Bank:


China’s fertility dropped in the 1960s and 1970s mostly because child mortality plummeted, women’s educational and employment opportunities improved, children’s labor became less important for survival, and because of urbanization. It is true that fertility has continued to fall under the one-child policy — and the drop from 2.5 to 1.5 is in some ways more dramatic than falling from 4.5 to 2.5. But as UNC demographer Yong Cai has shown, today, even when fertility restrictions are lifted fertility rates don’t rise. People have few children in China today because children have become too expensive — good schools especially cost too much, and the health care burdens of children outweigh the hoped-for future return of a child to care for parents when they’re retired.

With all that said, I like a few of Last’s policy suggestions, which include reducing tax burden for people who have children; and improving transportation infrastructure (he says highways specifically, but this is the Wall St. Journal) and telecommuting options so that people can live in lower-cost areas while working in expensive cities. I don’t think this would have much impact on fertility, though.

4 thoughts on “Is low fertility America’s problem?

  1. The problem is not so much the declining fertility rate as it is the decreasing resolve to make sure that the children we do have obtain the human capital to support continued success for the nation as a whole. When we were kids, it really was possible to work summer jobs and pay for your college tuition, and work a few nights a week for pizza and beer money. Those days are gone because of a dramatic reduction in support for education–which cuts across the board. It isn’t the size of the next generation that is the problem, it is their limited potential to contribute to society–which is none of their fault.


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