America is looking down the barrel of population collapse

A mother and child.
A mother and child. Illustrated | Alamy Stock Photo, iStock

The long decline in the U.S. birthrate continues. 2020 saw the fewest babies born relative to the population of women between 15 and 44 of any year in American history. A recent Pew poll found the fraction of non-parents between 18 and 49 saying they were "very likely" to have kids fell from 32 percent in 2018 to 26 percent this year, while the fraction saying they were "not too likely" or "not at all likely" increased from 37 percent to 44 percent.

There are strong reasons to think these trends will only escalate. Absent major changes, in the next decade or two, the American population is likely going to start falling fast.

For many years, the U.S. had a weirdly high birth rate relative to peer nations, especially given how our horrible welfare state made parenthood exceptionally expensive. As I explained some years back, this was largely because of teen pregnancy and immigration from other countries with higher birthrates. But all that is ended now. Teen pregnancy has been falling steadily for decades, and birthrates in America's main sources of immigrants are also declining.

Now, it's important to note that fertility has fallen across the world, even in countries with ultra-generous welfare states for parents. This surely has something to do with changing norms for what people expect in marriage, a general decline in social connections of all kinds, and feminist liberation of women from repressive traditional gender roles (a good thing, to be clear).

In fact, there's a noticeable (if rough) link between continued enforcement of rigid gender norms and lower fertility. South Korea and Japan have notoriously severe social sanctions against single mothers and some of the lowest birthrates in the world, at an estimated 1.4 and 0.9 children per women respectively. Germany used to have a very patriarchal welfare state and paid for it in the form of a low birthrate, too, though it seems to have made some progress in this area recently. By contrast, Sweden and France have kept their fertility rate comparatively high (at 1.7 and 1.8 respectively) by embracing gender equality and generous welfare benefits — especially for single parents, as it's harder to raise a child by yourself.

Here in the U.S., we're not immune to those global cultural shifts. But we don't have European-style public benefits to soften the blow. The American welfare state effectively imposes massive penalties on people who have kids, especially if they're on the bottom half of the income ladder. Our health care system is the most expensive and worst-performing in the rich world. We have no national paid family leave, no public child care, and no national public pre-K. Our income distribution is hideously unequal. We do have a child allowance of sorts thanks to the American Rescue Plan, but it's designed poorly and isn't reaching many of the people who need it most.

That's inescapably part of why the American birthrate is now just 1.7 children per woman, and without some change — cultural or political or both — this combination of forces means it will keep falling, quite possibly down to Korean levels. At that point, our population would halve in about one human lifespan.

Immigration probably isn't going to make up the difference. While the rate of new American residents increased dramatically from the 1940s to 2006, since then it has declined somewhat. Both the rise of a violently xenophobic, anti-immigrant Republican Party and the increasingly obvious material and political decrepitude of the U.S. will surely cause immigration to fall more in the future. Around the world, America is less and less the "land of opportunity" and more the land of medical bankruptcy and mass shootings.

Now, President Biden's Build Back Better agenda would make some progress on the welfare problems, but not much. As currently designed, Matt Bruenig explains at The Atlantic, its paid leave program is a sick joke, and its child care and pre-K programs are badly incomplete. These last two will not reach a large fraction of Americans and may not even get off the ground at all. There is little prospect of these problems being fixed in the foreseeable future, let alone the American welfare state jumping to a Swedish standard of generosity.

Taken together, Biden's agenda would change the American welfare state for families from "one of the worst in the entire world" to "the worst among rich countries, by far." And if France and Sweden are any guide, it is not easy to convince modern people to have kids. You pretty much have to shower parents with cash from each child's birth until they graduate from high school.

One often hears arguments that a declining population is actually good because of climate change, in the mode of old-fashioned environmentalists who stoke panic about overpopulation.

Overheated predictions from the 1970s in this vein turned out to be totally mistaken, and this line of argument is still simply false. Economic structure is vastly more important than raw population when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. A population living in huge single family McMansions on big lots out in exurbia, with coal-based electrical power, where every family has several four-ton SUVs or pickup trucks, can easily emit five to 10 times as much greenhouse gas as the same number of people living in dense, walkable, bike-friendly urban neighborhoods powered by nuclear or renewables.

But, more importantly, rapidly declining population causes all sorts of social problems. We've already seen it in many American cities victimized by de-industrialization — Detroit became a byword for economic disaster in large part because its population fell by two thirds between 1950 and 2010.

Population collapse means services and infrastructure designed for a large population have to be downsized or (more realistically) left to rot. It means a strain on the tax base and intergenerational tension as a smaller proportion of workers has to shoulder the tax and work burden of caring for a larger population of retired people. The way America loads a terrific financial burden on families compounds this problem by forcing people to delay having kids until well into their 30s or even 40s. Where young parents can usually tap grandparents for free child care, middle-aged parents often have to care for both babies and declining parents at the same time. Is it any wonder so many millennials just don't feel like procreating?

Obviously it would bad to force people to have children. Abortion and contraception are fundamental parts of any decent health care system and of reproductive choice. But it's also wrong to force people not to have children — and that's what America's crummy welfare state effectively does. When you make it impossible for the people to reproduce themselves, depopulation is what's going to happen.

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