New paper: Baby Bust analysis of 124 counties in 2 states through February 2021

Having spent a few months collecting data on birth rates over the last year, and a few months pouring over pandemic data, I took the time to bring the two together and assess the relationship between some basic pandemic indicators and the latest fertility outcomes. The result is a short paper I titled, “Baby Bust: Falling Fertility in US Counties Is Associated with COVID-19 Prevalence and Mobility Reductions,” now available on SocArXiv, with links to the data and Stata code for replication. 

Here’s the abstract:

The United States experienced a 3.8 percent decline in births for 2020 compared with 2019, but the rate of decline was much faster at the end of the year (8 percent in December), suggesting dramatic early effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which began affecting social life in late March 2020. Using birth data from Florida and Ohio counties through February 2021, this analysis examines whether and how much falling birth rates were associated with local pandemic conditions, specifically infection rates and reductions in geographic mobility. Results show that the vast majority of counties experienced declining births, suggestive of a general influence of the pandemic, but also that declines were steeper in places with greater prevalence of COVID-19 infections and more extensive reductions in mobility. The latter result is consistent with more direct influences of the pandemic on family planning or sexual behavior. The idea that social isolation would cause an increase in subsequent births receives no support.

Here’s the main result in graphic form, showing that births fell more in January/February in those counties with more COVID-19 cases, and those with more mobility limitation (as measured by Google), through the end of last May:

However, note also that births fell almost everywhere (87% of the population lives in a fertility-falling county), so it didn’t take a high case count or shutdown to produce the effect.

There will be a lot more research on all this to come, I just wanted to get this out to help establish a few basic findings and motivate more research. I’d love your feedback or suggestions.

Earlier updates and media reports are here.

The one-child policy was bad and so is “One Child Nation”

I was considering assigning the students in my Family Demography seminar to watch the documentary, One Child Nation: The Truth Behind the Propaganda, so I watched it. The movies uses the tragic family history of one of the directors, Nanfu Wang, to tell the story of the Chinese birth planning policy that began in 1979 and extended through many modifications until 2015. Nothing against watching it, but it’s not good. The one-child policy wasn’t good either, of course, leading to many violations of human rights and a lot of suffering and death.

Before watching the movie, I’m glad I read the review by Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist who spent about 25 years studying the one-child policy and related questions (summarized in three books and many articles, here). It’s short and you should read it, but just to summarize a couple of key historical points:

  • The policy was “the cornerstone of a massively complex and consequential state project to modernize China’s population,” and can’t be understood in the context of birth control alone.
  • Many people opposed and resisted the policy, but reducing birth rates was a commonly-understood goal, for both gender equality and economic development, and many women were glad the government supported them in that effort. The “vast majority” felt “deep ambivalence” about the policy, weighing individual desires against the perceived need to sacrifice for the common good.
  • The policy was unevenly applied and enforced (it was especially harsh in the provinces featured in the film), and after 1993 enforcement became less egregious. 
  • Exceptions were added starting in the early 1980s, until by the late 1990s the majority of the population was not subject to a one-child rule. 

There are some other specific errors and distortions, including the dramatic, incorrect claim that “the one-child policy [was] written into China’s constitution” in 1982 (as Greenhalgh writes, “the 1982 Constitution says only: “both husbands and wives are duty-bound to practice birth planning”). And the decision to translate all uses of the term “birth planning” as “one-child policy.” That said, the stories of forced abortions, sterilizations, and infanticide are wrenching and ring true.

I have two things to add to Greenhalgh’s review. First, a simple data illustration to show that China, really, is not a “one-child nation.” Using Chinese census data, here is the total number of children (by age 35-39) born to three groups of Chinese women, arranged according to their ages in 1980, about when the one-child policy began.

The shift left shows the decline in number of children born: the mean fell from 3.8 to 2.5 to 1.8 in these data. (Measuring Chinese fertility is complicated, but the census provides a reasonable ballpark.) But the main thing I want to show is that among the last group — those who were beginning their childbearing years when the policy took effect — 61% had two or more children. The idea that China became a “one-child nation” under the policy is false.

Second, the movie takes a hard turn in the middle and focuses on international adoption, and the illegal trafficking of mostly second-born girls to orphanages that sought to place them abroad. This was a very serious problem. But the movie tells the story of the most notorious scandal (for which many people served jail terms) as if it were the common practice, and centers on the savior-like behavior of American activists helping adopted children trace their familial roots. Granting that of course that corruption was terrible, and that the motivations of many (some?) adoptive parents (including me) were good, from China’s point of view it’s not a central story in the history of the one-child policy. As the movie notes, 130,000 Chinese children were adopted abroad during the period, during which time hundreds of millions were born.

Greenhalgh summarizes on this point, calling the film a:

“familiar coercion narrative, complete with villain (the state), victims (rural enforcers and targets), and savior (an American couple offering DNA services to match adopted girls in the U.S. with birth parents in China). The characters (at least the victims and saviors) have some emotional complexity, but they still play the stock roles in an oft-told tale. For American viewers, this narrative is comforting, because it provides a simple, morally clear way to react to troubling developments unfolding in a faraway, little understood land. And by using China (communist, state-controlled childbearing) as a foil for the U.S. (liberal, relative reproductive freedom), the film leaves us feeling smug about the assumed superiority of our own system.”

The many centuries of Chinese patriarchy are a dark part of the human story, and in some ways is unique. For example — relevant to this recent histyory — female infanticide and selling girls has a long history (a history that includes foot binding and other atrocities). The Chinese Communist Party, for all its misdeeds, did not create this problem. Gender inequality in China, including the decline in fertility — which was mostly accomplished before 1979 — has markedly improved since 1949. Greenhalgh concludes: “In China, before the state began managing childbearing, reproductive decisions were made by the patriarchal family. Since the shift to a two-child policy, they have been subject to the strong if indirect control of market forces. One form of control may be preferable to another, but freedom over our bodies is an illusion.”

Pandemic Baby Bust situation update

[Update: California released revised birth numbers, which added a trivial number to previous months, except December, where they added a few thousand, so now the state has a 10% decline for the month, relative to 2019. I hadn’t seen a revision that large before.]

Lots of people are talking about falling birth rates — even more than they were before. First a data snapshot, then a link roundup.

For US states, we have numbers through December for Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, and Ohio. They are all showing substantial declines in birth rates from previous years. Most dramatically, California just posted December numbers, and revised the numbers from earlier months, now showing a 19% 10% drop in December. After adding about 500 births to November and a few to October, the drop in those two months is now 9%. The state’s overall drop for the year is now 6.2%. These are, to put it mildly, very larges declines in historical terms. Even if California adds 500 to December later, it will still be down 18%. Yikes. One thing we don’t yet know is how much of this is driven by people moving around, rather than just changes in birth rates. California in 2019 had more people leaving the state (before the pandemic) than before, and presumably there have been essentially no international immigrants in 2020. Hawaii also has some “birth tourism”, which probably didn’t happen in 2020, and has had a bad year for tourism generally. So much remains to be learned.

Here are the state trends (figure updated Feb 18):

births 18-20 state small multiple by month

From the few non-US places that I’m getting monthly data so far, the trend is not so dramatic. Although British Columbia posted a steep drop in December. I don’t know why I keep hoping Scotland will settle down their numbers… (updated Feb 18):

births countries 18-20 small multiple by month

Here are some recent items from elsewhere on this topic:

  • That led to some local TV, including this from KARE11 in Minneapolis:

Good news / bad news clarification

There’s an unfortunate piece of editing in the NBCLX piece, where I’m quoted like this: “Well, this is a bad situation. [cut] The declines we’re seeing now are pretty substantial.” To clarify — and I said this in the interview, but accidents happen — I am not saying the decline in births is a bad situation, I’m saying the pandemic is a bad situation, which is causing a decline in births. Unfortunately, this has slipped. As when the Independent quoted the piece (without talking to me) and said, “Speaking to the outlet, Philip Cohen, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland, called the decline a ‘bad situation’.”


The data for this project is available here: osf.io/pvz3g/. You’re free to use it.


For more on fertility decline, including whether it’s good or bad, and where it might be going, follow the fertility tag.


Acknowledgement: We have lots of good conversation about this on Twitter, where there is great demography going on. Also, Lisa Carlson, a graduate student at Bowling Green State University, who works in the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, pointed me toward some of this state data, which I appreciate.

COVID-19 Baby Bust update and data

Joe Pinsker at the Atlantic has a piece out on the coming (probable) baby bust. In it he reviews existing evidence for a coming decline in births as a result of the pandemic, especially including historical comparisons and Google search data. Could we see this already?

Pinsker writes:

The baby bust isn’t expected to begin in earnest until December. And it could take a bit longer than that, Sarah Hayford, a sociologist at Ohio State University, told me, if parents-to-be didn’t adjust their plans in response to the pandemic immediately back in March, when its duration wasn’t widely apparent.

If people immediately changed their plans in February, we might see a decline in births in October, but Hayford is right that’s early. And what about September, for which I’ve already observed declining births in Florida and California? If people who were pregnant already in January had miscarriages or abortions because of the pandemic, that would result in fewer births in September, but how big could that effect be? So maybe the Florida and California data are flukes, or data errors, or lots of pregnant people left those states and gave birth elsewhere (or pregnant people who normally come didn’t arrive). Perhaps more likely is that 2020 was already going to be a down year. As I told Pinsker:

“It might actually be that we were already heading for a record drop in births this year … If that’s the case, then birth rates in 2021 are probably going to be even more shockingly low.”

Anyway, we’ll find out soon enough. And to that end I’ve started assembling a dataset of monthly births where I can find them, which so far includes Florida, California, Oregon, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Hawaii, Sweden, Finland, Scotland, and the Netherlands, to varying degrees of timeliness. As of today we have October data for some of them:

As of now Florida and California remain the strongest cases for a pandemic effect. But they are also both likely to add some more births to October (in November’s report, California increased the September number by 3%).

Anyway, lots of speculation while we’re killing time. You can get the little dataset here on the Open Science Framework: https://osf.io/pvz3g/. Check the date on the .csv or .xlsx file to see what I last updated it. I’ll add more countries or states if I find out about them.

The pandemic and the family, demography edition (video)

I think the big demographic story of 2021 is likely to be the very large decline in births. I think everything points that way and I think it’s going to be quite shocking when we see how big it is. — Philip Cohen, October 27, 2020

I gave a talk yesterday at the University of California, Irvine Center for Demographic and Social Analysis. The slides are here under CC-BY license. The video is below.

After reviewing the state of the economic and social shock of the pandemic, with implications for family processes and events (sex, contraception, pregnancy, birth, marriage, and divorce), I presented some new information on births and marriage.

Here is the data on births, in Florida and California, the only states I found that have monthly updated birth numbers through September (subject to revision, but probably not by much). Both show large declines in births in 2020. Which seems hard to link to the pandemic, gestation times being what they are (but maybe more reasonable than last month’s report). There may already be more miscarriages and abortions, or maybe fewer premature births? I don’t know. If these declines have nothing to do with the pandemic, and they’re just the continuation of our trend toward lower birth rates, then that’s pretty shocking, too.

This is the total births by month and year, with 2018 and 2019 compared with 2020 so far:

Here are the monthly totals compared with the annual average decline in over the previous three years, which is 2.9% in California and 0.7% in Florida, which I call “predicted.”

In September 2020 versus September 2019, births were 6.1% lower in Florida and 9.6% lower in California. There is a lot of big news in the news these days, but I think this is still pretty big news. Again, if this has nothing to do with the pandemic that’s even more shocking.

Anyway, here’s the video:

Are pandemic effects on birth rates already detectable?

As birth data approaches, maybe we can get beyond analyses like Google searches for pregnancy-related terms to see what’s happening with birth rates.

At this writing we are a few days shy of 35 weeks from February 1st. If I read this right, 10% of US births occur at 36 weeks of gestation or less. But the most recent complete data I see is from August, so it’s early. However, most fertilized human eggs do not come to term, being lost either before (30%) or after (30-40%) implantation. That’s from a paper by Jenna Nobles and Amar Hamoudi, who write:

Evidence suggests that multiple mechanisms may be involved in pregnancy survival, including those that affect placental development and function, fetal oxidative stress, fetal neurological development, and likely many others. These, in turn, are shaped by more distal processes that affect maternal nutrition, maternal exposure to biological and psychosocial stress, maternal exposure to infection, and management of chronic conditions. Pregnancy survival varies with women’s body mass index, consumption of folic acid, and in some studies, reports of stressful life events (citations removed).

The pandemic might reasonably have contributed to a higher rate of pregnancy loss from these factors. And then there are abortions, which people have probably needed more even though they had less access to them (see this report from Guttmacher). So the net effect is unclear.

Setting aside how the pandemic might have affected fertility intentions and planning (I assume this is negative, as reported by Guttmacher), there might already be fewer births, from loss and abortion.

I haven’t looked at every state, but Florida and California report births by month. In Florida, there were 9.5% fewer babies born in August 2020 than in the previous year (they revise these as they go, but the August number has been stable for a little while, so probably won’t increase much). In California there were 9.6% fewer births in August of this year compared with last year. Here are the monthly trends, including the last three years (I included Florida’s September number as of today, but that will certainly rise):

This is going to be tricky because birth rates were already falling in many places. But the average decline in the last three years was 2.9% in California and 0.7% in Florida, so these numbers clearly outpace that naïve expectation. Also, what about spring? Maybe the pandemic was already causing a decline in live births in California in March (from immigrants not coming or staying in Mexico or other countries?), but if the decline in March was unrelated, then it’s not clear how to interpret the drop in August. So it will be complicated. But this is a bona fide blip in the expected direction, so I’m posting it with a question mark.

I assume other people will be way ahead of me on this, though I haven’t seen anything. Feel free to post other analyses in the comments.

Early pandemic demographic indicators

A couple new ones and a couple updates.

Pregnancy

The pandemic could be affecting the number of abortions, miscarriages, or infant deaths, but unless those effects are large it should be too early to see effects on the total birth rate, given that we’re only about 7 months into it here. So for possible birth indicators I did a little Google search analysis using the public Google Trends data.

I found three searches that were pretty well correlated in the weekly series: “am I pregnant”, “pregnancy test,” and “morning sickness”, which all should have something to do with the frequency of new pregnancies. I ran Google Trends back five years, created an index from these searches (alpha = .68) , smoothed it a little, and this is what I got:

There was already a big drop in 2019 from the previous three years (reasonable, based on recent trends), and then 2020 started out with a further drop. But then it spiked downward in March before rebounding back to its lower level. So, maybe that implies birth rates will keep falling but not off the charts compared with recent trends.

I also checked “missed period,” which was not well correlated with the others, and got this:

Again, 2019 was already showing some decline, and 2020 started out lower than that, and now searches for “missed period” are running lower than last year, but not more in the middle of the year than they were in the beginning. So, inconclusive for pandemic effect.

Weddings

Here’s a new take on the Google trends for weddings. I took the averages of searches for “wedding invitations”, “wedding shower”, “bridal shower”, “wedding shower”, and “wedding dresses” (alpha=.94). With a little smoothing, here is 2020 compared with the average of the four previous years (unlike pregnancy searches, this one didn’t show a marked decline in 2019 compared with previous years).

March and April showed catastrophic declines in searches for wedding topics, and the rebound so far has been weak. However, weddings aren’t the same as marriages. Maybe people who had to cancel their weddings still got married down at whatever the pandemic equivalent of the courthouse is. So here’s the same analysis just for the search term “marriage license.” This shows a steep but not as catastrophic drop-off in March and April, and a stronger rebound. So maybe the decline in drop in marriages won’t be as big as the drop in weddings.

Actual marriages

I previously showed the steep decline in recorded marriages in Florida. Here’s an update.

Florida lists recorded marriages by county and month, one month behind (see Table 17). They update as they go, so as of today August marriages are probably still not all recorded. The comparison with previous years shows a collapse in March and April, and then some rebounding. August is preliminary and will come up some.

Marriages in Florida normally peak between March and May. Of course it’s too early to say how many of these were just being postponed. The cumulative trend shows that through July Florida is down 24,000 marriages, or 27%, compared with last year.

Divorce ideation

When the going gets tough, the afflicted want to get divorced, but maybe they can’t. It’s expensive and time consuming and maybe people think it will upset the children even more. (I’ve written about divorce and recessions here and here). So my initial assumption going into the pandemic was that there would be a stall in divorces even though the intent to divorce would rise, followed by a rebound when people get a chance to act on their wishes.

Here I use Google search trends for four searches: “divorce lawyer”, “divorce attorney”, “get a divorce”, and “how to divorce”. The alpha for this index is .69 (when I just use the attorney and lawyer, the alpha is .86, but the result looks the same, so I’m showing the wider index). The results show a drop in divorce ideation in March into April, followed by a rebound to a level a little above the previous year average. Note this pandemic-spring drop is a lot less pronounced than the wedding and marriage collapses above.

Actual divorces

Divorces take time, of course. Like births, I wouldn’t expect to see definitive results right away. In fact, it’s hard to know how long divorces are in process before they show up as recorded. However, in my favorite real-time demography state, Florida, they have been recording divorces every month, and have a look at this:

It’s a giant plunge in recorded divorces, almost 60% in April, followed by a weaker rebound. Again, the records are not yet complete, especially for August, so we’ll see. But comparing these patterns, it might be that there was a short suspension in divorce ideation as people were distracted by the crisis, followed by a rebound which hasn’t yet translated into divorce filings. Googling about divorce seems cheap and easy (and faster) compared with pulling it off, but this might mean there is growing pent up demand for divorce, which is bad (and may imply greater risks of conflict and violence).

Young adults living “at home”

I previous wrote about young adults living with their parents and grandparents using the June and then July Current Population Survey data made available by IPUMS.org. Subsequently, the Pew Research Center did something very similar using the data through July (with additional breakdowns and historical context). Pew used living with parents, apparently including those in households where the parents are not the householders. I prefer my definition — young adults living in the home of parents (also, or grandparents) — which fits better with the popular concept of living “at home.” So if your parents come to live with you, that’s different.

Anyway, here’s the update through August, which shows the percentage of young adults living at home falling back some from the June peak. I will be very interested to follow this through the fall.

Update: By October this trend had returned almost back to pre-pandemic levels:

Stata code for the living at home analysis is available here: https://osf.io/2xrhc/.

The pandemic and its attendant economic crisis is having massive effects on many aspects of family life. These early indicators are just possible targets of future analysis. There is a lot of other related work going on, which I’ve not taken the time to link to here. Please feel free to recommend other work in the comments.

The continuation of babies

There is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size.

Anna Louie Sussman wrote an essay in the New York Times, given the unfortunate title “The End of Babies” (about which more below). I like a lot of it, and I have substantial disagreements with the framing.

It’s about falling fertility and capitalism. This is a great summary, though I would replace “not necessarily a bad thing” with “usually a very good thing”:

Declining fertility typically accompanies the spread of economic development, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best, it reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living.

At its worst, though, it reflects a profound failure: of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible; of our collective ability to solve the climate crisis so that children seem a rational prospect; of our increasingly unequal global economy. In these instances, having fewer children is less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavory circumstances.

Sussman sees the “bigger picture” as this:

Our current version of global capitalism … has generated shocking wealth for some, and precarity for many more. These economic conditions generate social conditions inimical to starting families: Our workweeks are longer and our wages lower, leaving us less time and money to meet, court and fall in love. Our increasingly winner-take-all economies require that children get intensive parenting and costly educations, creating rising anxiety around what sort of life a would-be parent might provide. A lifetime of messaging directs us toward other pursuits instead: education, work, travel.

This paragraph uses a sort of 1% versus 99% framing with is exaggerated but not unreasonable. This, however, is just exaggerated:

It seems clear that what we have come to think of as “late capitalism” — that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities — has become hostile to reproduction. Around the world, economic, social and environmental conditions function as a diffuse, barely perceptible contraceptive.

Lost in this, by now, is all the good parts about falling fertility mentioned previously. Remember, contraceptives are good, and most people use them deliberately to help control their lives, and they do it because social and environmental conditions have made it possible to have more control over one’s life than ever before, while offering unprecedented opportunities for women beyond child-rearing.

In short, I agree with Sussman’s description of how some people in rich societies would like to have more children than they do, I just don’t think it’s anything like a universal or even general experience in our era. And there is a puzzle confounding the premise: within rich countries, or at least the USA, privileged people, who presumably have more control over their lives and destinies, still have fewer children than those who are more powerless. I once wrote:

There is an argument that Americans are having fewer children than they want to because of our stone age work-family policies, especially poor family leave support and the high costs of good childcare. I’m sure that’s happening to some degree, but it’s still the case that more privileged people, who should be able to overcome those things more readily — people with college degrees and Whites — have lower fertility rates than people who are getting squeezed more.

Like a lot of work in this area, Sussman’s assessment that people want more children — which generates the image of the “reproductive malaise [that] has settled over,” in this case, Denmark — is based on surveys showing people’s “ideal” family size is larger than the average number of children actually born per family. But the interpretation of this gap is not so straightforward. Maybe people think three is the ideal number of children, but they also think a PhD is the ideal amount of education, and so they compromise, with some having one kid and a PhD, and some having three kids and a no college degree. This is an empirical question. What’s historically unprecedented and still so new that we don’t know what to make of it socially is the fact that this is a choice at all for so many people.

As I previously reported, the proportion of US women whose “ideal” number of children is higher than they number they had by age 40 has risen, from less than 15% among women born in the 1930s to almost a quarter for women born in the early 1970s. If you break that trend down by BA/no-BA education level, you can see that women with BA degrees are pushing it upward:

ideal fam size gss ba

So maybe college graduate women are having fewer than their ideal number of children like I’m earning less than the ideal amount of money — I think I could be making more money, but then I wouldn’t be able to sit around in my pajamas blogging with my dog, so I compromise. Of course, like some of the people in Sussman’s piece, a lot of people are justifiably unhappy about this, feeling they can’t compromise between forces pulling them in opposite directions. And so the result is dissatisfaction, maybe even malaise. I just don’t think we know how many people feel that way, or even whether the feeling is much more prevalent than it used to be.

Denmark

Sussman uses Denmark as one case study. This is her summary:

If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months’ paid family leave and highly subsidized day care. Women under 40 can get state-funded in vitro fertilization. But Denmark’s fertility rate, at 1.7 births per woman, is roughly on par with that of the United States. A reproductive malaise has settled over this otherwise happy land.

But where is the evidence for this malaise? Denmark’s fertility rate has been low and relatively stable, while it is the USA’s that has plummeted since 2007, which is why the countries are now at the same level. The malaise that is settling is here — Denmark’s has already settled.

To elaborate on Denmark: There was a rapid drop in fertility from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, followed by a rebound, and then relative stability for about 25 years. During that time, as the population continued to grow slowly, women were reaching age 40 with between 1.8 and 1.9 children on average. Rather than slipping into a chasm, it looks more like the affluent people of Denmark have settled into a moderately low-fertility regime.

denmark.xlsx

“Replacement” fertility, of about 2.1 births per woman, doesn’t mean a society is healthy or happy. Maybe late capitalism with a decent welfare state is not “hostile to reproduction,” maybe it just doesn’t quite get to 2.1.

How bad is that? Like the USA (see my last projections), Denmark will have population decline if they keep on this path, discounting immigration. Because they have been at low fertility for a while, the country is close to seeing actual decline based on birth rates alone. Here is what would happen over the next hundred years if current trends persist and there are no immigrants: The population would eventually contract 31%.

denmark.xlsx

A 31% population drop a century from now would make for a pretty different Denmark (as will another few feet of sea-level rise). But there is time to get there — the drop would only be 6% in the next three decades. And of course if they don’t want this, they could easily cushion the fall with immigration. In any event, there is nothing here that suggests the “end of babies” or the abandonment of reproduction — families would continue having an average of 1.8 children each, as they have for the last several decades.

A population below replacement fertility might seem diseased, but it might also just be the aggregation of a lot of people exercising their newfound freedoms in newly discovered ways, including having fewer or no children. I agree with Sussman when she writes:

The problem, to be clear, is not really one of “population” …. Hundreds of thousands of babies are born on this planet every day; people all over the world have shown they are willing to migrate to wealthier countries for jobs. Rather, the problem is the quiet human tragedies, born of preventable constraints — an employer’s indifference, a belated realization, a poisoned body — that make the wanted child impossible.

To the extent those tragedies occur, we should prevent or ameliorate them. And to the extent they are concentrated among people or groups who already experience marginalization, isolation, or exploitation, it’s a social problem that’s part of our burgeoning inequality suite. Healthcare, housing, education, and family leave all come to mind as helpful, even if they can’t solve the existential crisis of late capitalism. But two cautions. First, I’m not convinced such tragedies are more common than they used to be, just because people are having fewer children than they used to. Remember, we also have fewer people trapped into having large families they don’t want (forced-birther policies notwithstanding).

And second, crucially, even if we address these issues of self-determination, there is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size. We may eventually have to learn to live with fewer people, locally and globally, even if we’re all happy with the number of children we have.

What comes around

In the meantime, I think it’s confusing and ultimately unhelpful to confound what are essentially orthogonal issues. We should care about the problems Sussman raises regardless of population trends.

And that brings me to an aside on New York Times coverage. It was just 11 years ago, in 2008, that a different New York Times story about the existential threat of falling fertility, this one in the Magazine and titled “No Babies?”, singled out Scandinavian countries — with total fertility rates of 1.8 — as positive examples, bucking the trend toward “lowest-low” fertility demonstrated by Southern European countries, due to their “vigorous social-welfare systems.” That’s the same social welfare system, and the same total fertility rate, that Sussman characterizes as a “reproductive malaise” in Denmark today.

And there are illustrations of children playing alone in both cases. Because “the end of babies” and a world with “no babies” is best illustrated with a picture of the last child on earth alone in a playground. Great illustrations — just not of our societies.

nytchildrenalone

That said…

You can’t really pin sudden fertility swings on things like “late capitalism,” which are decades in the making. It was just February of 2009 that I was writing one of my first blog posts, “Why Are American Women Having More Children?” as U.S. total fertility rose to 2.1 for the first time since 1971. I think it was late capitalism, too, but the U.S. TFR was 13% higher than Denmark’s (they are now the same), and everyone was talking about American mothers “opting out” of the labor force to stay home with their four children. On the other hand is socialist Finland — a country with a lot of what I want from social policy, including low inequality and poverty, and lots of family leave — which has seen a fertility decline since 2010 that could reasonably be called a crash. The government estimates the TFR in 2019 is 1.32-1.34, down from 1.86 a decade ago!

Here are the trends in select countries:

country fertilitiy trends.xlsx

Does this mean the people in Finland are suddenly much less happy  relative to those in Denmark, which has seen a recent uptick in fertility rates? I have no idea. I can make population projections if you tell me the fertility rate, but I can’t tell you what the fertility rate will be in the future (and neither can you). A tiny bit humbling, honestly.

AEI panel on ‘demographic decline’

I was on a panel at the American Enterprise Institute, titled, “Demographic decline: National crisis or moral panic?” The event featured Lyman Stone, who argued that “demographic decline” in the U.S. is a national crisis, and my reply. Nick Eberstadt from AEI also offered comments. The moderator was AEI’s Karlyn Bowman.

The video of the event (which was on CSPAN) is below.

In my presentation I used the projections and other material I described earlier, here (where you can also link to the data and package I used). The gist of my talk is that with immigration we don’t have an issue of declining population.

I also emphasized the political implications of catastrophic “demographic decline” talk, which are based on a combination of doomsday demographics and increasing race/ethnic diversity. For that part I included these two figures, which I worked up for the next edition of my textbook. The first shows Census Bureau projections of the U.S. population by race/ethnicity, which is the basis for the White supremacist panic. (Important caveat about this figure is the assumptions about the ethnic identity of the descendants of today’s Latinos, see Richard Alba.)

re-forecast

For the politics of immigration, which is a giant topic, I presented this very simple figure showing the rise of Latin American and Asian immigration since 1965.

imre-history

Here is the video on YouTube. If you prefer the CSPAN production style (or don’t want to give AEI click), theirs is here. My talk is 15 minutes, starting at 13:40.

Happy to hear your responses, including on the dicey issue of whether to participate in an AEI event.

(In the YouTube comments, the first person calls me a “Jewish supremacist” and demands to know my view on Israeli immigration policy, and another says, “This guy is through and through an open borders globalist.” So that’s the dialogue, too.)

Fertility rate implications explained

(Sorry for the over-promising title; thanks for the clicks.)

First where we are, then projections, with figures.

For background: Caroline Hartnett has an essay putting the numbers in context. Leslie Root has a recent piece explaining how these numbers are deployed by white supremacists (key point: over-hyping the downside of lower fertility rates has terrible real-world implications).

Description

The National Center for Health Statistics released the 2018 fertility numbers yesterday, showing another drop in birth rates, and the lowest fertility since the Baby Boom. We are continuing a historical process of moving births from younger to older ages, which shows up as fewer births in the transition years. I illustrate this each year by updating this figure, showing the relative change in birth rates by age since 1989:

change in birthrates by age 1989-2016.xlsx

Historically, postponement was associated with reduction in lifetime births — which is what really matters for population trends. When people were having lots of children, any delay reduced the total number. With birth rates around two per woman, however, there is a lot more room for postponement — a lot of time to get to two. (At the societal level, both reduction and postponement are generally good for gender equality, if women have good health and healthcare.)

This means that drops in what we demographers call “period” fertility (births right now) are not the same as drops in “completed” fertility (births in a lifetime), or falling population in the long run. The period fertility measure most often used, the unfortunately named total fertility rate (TFR), is often misunderstood as an indicator of how many children women will have. It is actually how many births they are having right now, expressed in lifetime terms (I describe it in this video, with instructions).

Lawrence Wu and Nicholas Mark recently showed that despite several periods of below “replacement” fertility (in terms of TFR), no U.S. cohort of women has yet finished their childbearing years with fewer than two births per woman. Here is the completed fertility of U.S. women, by year of birth, as recorded by the General Social Survey. By this account, women born in the early 1970s (now in their late-forties by 2018) have had an average of 2.3 children.

Stata graph

Whether our streak of over-two completed fertility persists depends on what happens in in the next few years (and of course on immigration, which I’ll get to).

Last year at this time I summed up the fertility situation and concluded, “sell stock now,” because birth rates fell for women at all ages except over 40. That kind of postponement, I figured, based on history, reflected economic uncertainty and thus was an ill omen for the economy. The S&P 500 is up 5% since then, which isn’t bad as far as my advice goes. And I’m still bearish based on these birth trends (I bet I’ll be right before fertility increases).

Projection

It is very hard to have an intuitive sense of what demographic indicators mean, especially for the future. So I’ve made some projections to show the math of the situation, to get the various factors into scale. My point is to show what the current (or future) birth rates imply about future growth, and the relative role of immigration.

These projections run from 2016 to 2100. I made them using the Census Bureau’s Demographic Analysis and Population Projection System software, which lets me set the birth, death, and migration rates.* I started with the 2016 population because that’s the most recent set of life tables NCHS has released for mortality. Starting in 2018 I apply the current age-specific birth rates.

First, the most basic projection. This is what would happen if birth rates stayed the same as those in 2018 and we completely cut off all immigration (Projection A), or if we had net migration running at the current level of just under +1 million each year, using Census estimates for age and sex of the migrants (Projection B).

projections.xlsx

From the 2016 population of 323 million, if the birth rates by age in 2018 were locked in, the population would peak at 329 million in 2029 and then start to decline, reaching 235 million by 2100. However, if we maintain current immigration levels (by age and sex), the population would keep growing till 2066 before tapering only slightly. (Note this assumes, unrealistically, that the immigrants and their children have the same birth rates as the current population; they have generally been higher.) This the most important bottom line: there is no reason for the U.S. to experience population decline, with even moderate levels of immigration, and assuming no rebound in fertility rates. Immigration rates do not have to increase to maintain the current population indefinitely.

Note I also added the percentage of the population over age 65 on the figure. That number is about 16% now. If we cut off immigration and maintain current birth rates, it would rise to 25% by the end of the century, increasing the need for investment in old age stuff. If we allow current migration to continue, that growth is less and it only reaches 23%. This is going up no matter what.

To show the scale of other changes that we might expect — again, not predictions — I added a few other factors. Here are the same projections, but adding a transition to higher life expectancies by 2080 (using Japan’s current life tables; we can dream). In these scenarios, population decline is later and slower (and not just at older ages, since Japan also has lower child mortality).

projections.xlsx

Under these scenarios, with rising life expectancies, the old population rises more, to between 27% and 29%. Generally experts assume life expectancies will rise more than this, but that’s the assumed direction (now, unbelievably, in doubt).

Finally, I’ve been assuming birth rates will not fall further. If what we’re seeing now is fertility postponement, we wouldn’t expect much more decline. But what if fertility keeps falling? Here is what you get with the assumptions in Projection D, plus total fertility rates falling to 1.6, either by 2030 or 2050. As you can see, in the 1.6 to 1.8 range, the effects on population size aren’t great in this time scale.

projections.xlsx

Conclusion: We are on track for slowing population growth, followed by a plateau or modest decline, with population aging, by the end of the century, and immigration is a bigger question than fertility rates, for both population growth and aging.

Perspective

In a global context where more people want to come here than want to leave (to date), worrying about low birth rates tends to lend itself to myopic, religious, or racist perspectives which I don’t share. I don’t think American culture is superior, whites are in danger of extinction, or God wants us to have more children.

I do not agree with Dowell Myers, who was quoted yesterday as saying, “The birthrate is a barometer of despair.” That even as some people are having fewer children than they want, or delaying childbearing when they would rather not. In the most recent cohort to finish childbearing, 23% gave an “ideal number of children for a family to have” that was greater than the number they had, and that number has trended up, as you can see here:

Stata graph

Is this rising despair? As individuals, people don’t need to have children any more. Ideally, they have as many as they want, when they want, but they are expensive and time consuming and it’s not surprising people end up with fewer than they think “ideal.” Not to be crass about it, but I assume the average person also has fewer boats than they consider ideal.

And how do we know what is the right level of fertility for the population? As Marina Adshade said on Twitter, “Did women actually have a desire for more children in the past? Or did they simply lack the bargaining power and means to avoid births?”

However, to the extent that low birth rates reflect frustrated dreams, or fear and uncertainty, or insufficient support for families with children, of course those are real problems. But then let’s name those problems and address them, rather than trying to change fertility rates or grow the population, which is a policy agenda with a very bad track record.


* I put the DAPPS file package I created on the Open Science Framework, here. If you install DAPPS you can open this and look at the projections output, with graphs and tables and population pyramids.