U.S. Birthrate Might Rise With Help From Government

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Americans aren’t having as many babies as we used to. Fewer infants were born in 2017 than in any of the previous 30 years, even though our total population is much larger than it was in the mid-1980s.

Whether we should be concerned about this decline, whether it is likely to continue, what’s behind it, and what, if anything, should be done about it: All are disputed questions. A recent report by Lyman Stone, an economist and a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute, sheds light on each of them.

The main reasons people have expressed worry about the trend are economic. A lower birthrate worsens the finances of Social Security and Medicare. It also poses challenges for business, since it implies a smaller pool of customers and employees. Stone points out that it also implies greater inequality, as rich people have fewer heirs among whom to split their fortunes.

Stone thinks that the decline in birthrates will probably continue, and that we are on track for this decade to have the lowest number of births since the Great Depression. We will be well below the replacement rate, with a population that will shrink absent immigration.

Many are drawn to invoke changes in moral and cultural values to explain the decline. Lower levels of religiosity, for example, have made people less likely to have kids, or to have several kids. But this effect is “probably small,” and the causal arrow goes both ways. Religious attendance rises on marriage and childbirth. If a smaller share of society is getting married and raising children, a smaller share will go to church.

Opponents of abortion sometimes assume that Roe v. Wade has played a large role in the decline in childbirth, but this does not appear to be the case. The decision appears to have caused the rate at which Americans conceive to rise significantly while having a smaller negative effect on birthrates. Stone presents evidence that even major restrictions on abortion would not cause birthrates to rise a lot, either.

The great flaw with simple values-based explanations is that the desire to have children among American women has risen rather than fallen. Women have, on average, wanted more children than they actually have for more than five decades now.

The biggest factor in declining fertility, Stone finds, is the rise in marriage ages. “People are getting married later and spending more of their peak-fertility years unmarried. Thus, they are less likely to have children.”

Why the age of marriage has kept rising is of course a large topic that deserves several studies of its own. Stone believes that values and economics have intertwined to cause Americans to put off marriage and child-rearing. More years of schooling have caused some of the delay. Student-loan debt and the high cost of housing has been an obstacle to family formation for many.

To the extent such explanations are correct, public policy can affect the trend in birthrates. Reforms to make higher education and housing cheaper could close some of the gap between American birthrates and the replacement rate. Universities, Stone suggests, could make enrollment more compatible with childbearing if they “provided flexible, discounted, on-site childcare” along with the many other amenities they already offer. He also advocates an increase in the child tax credit (as I have also advocated).

The idea that the government should take action to raise birthrates is understandably controversial. The government should not try to convince Americans to have more kids than they want in order to make its projections for old-age entitlements look cheerier. But that’s not what Stone is talking about.

His key point is that Americans want to have more kids but are not succeeding in their ambition. If we can remove obstacles in their path, we ought to do so. We already have other reasons to want cheaper housing and college tuition.

Working for such reforms may turn out to be a way to secure blessing not only for ourselves but also, in a crucial way, for our posterity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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