Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said immigration reform would help America in a speech at the Faith and Freedom Conference on Friday, saying, "Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families, and they have more intact families, and they bring a younger population." The fertile-immigrants argument seemed a little off-key, in part because it's a counterintuitive strategy for selling immigration to the relatively white Republican base. But more important, the picture Bush paints of immigrants with tons of babies isn't quite right. Fertility rates are falling around the world — everywhere except subsaharan Africa. And it might be because of something else uniquely American: television.
In 2011, the U.S. birthrate hit a record low — "led by a plunge in births to immigrant women" since the start of the recession, Pew Research Center found in a study published in November 2012. Foreign-born women still had a higher birth rate than American-born women, but immigrant women's birth rate declined much faster. And the birth rate drops significantly between the first and second generations.
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As The Washington Post's Brad Plumer explained in May, some developing countries have lower birth rates than the U.S. and some European countries (see chart above right). "Chile (1.85 children per woman), Brazil (1.81), and Thailand (1.56) have lower birthrates than France (2.0), Norway (1.95), and Sweden (1.98)," Stanford geographer Martin Lewis wrote for the Breakthrough Institute. America's is 2.1. Why is that? Weirdly, Lewis says, it might be TV. Look how closely rates of female exposure to media line up with fertility rates.
It turns out TV makes people nicer to women. As Plumer explained, a 2009 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics showed that getting cable TV "is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and son preference, as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility."