We have lately seen a small deluge of stories about the report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that the fertility rate for American born women in the United States is well below the replacement rate. It notes variations by geography and ethnicity, with South Dakota and Hispanic women still being above the replacement rate, but pretty much everyone else falling below it.
Whether this is a problem depends on one’s perspective. Sheila Bair, who used to run the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), sees it mostly as a source of economic opportunity, while recognizing that having a larger pool of old people relying on a smaller work force may pose problems in the near term.
Some ecologists argue that a smaller population is good from the perspective of reducing the harm humans almost inevitably cause the natural environment, especially given the expectations and living standards of developed countries like the United States.
On the other hand, Paul Ryan, in his policy wonk (!) disguise, thinks that the solution to the problem he, personally, has with Social Security and Medicare is for younger couples to have more children, thus increasing the number of young people in the population. This is a typically short-sighted, purely ideological, stupid, Republican response. It persists with the pretense that individual choices are the only way to solve large, public problems.
It’s especially dumb because it flirts dangerously with two policy areas Republicans should want to stay well away from. For one, anyone who really wants to increase fertility could strike some easy blows in that direction by making it easier to have babies. The fertility rate in the United States was notably high in 1800 and declined steadily throughout the 19th century, until it was about half in 1900 of what it had been in 1800. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt raised the same issue, speaking about the specter of “race suicide.”
Women would be more likely to have more children, and to start having them earlier, if they did not have a huge quantity of student debt to pay, if they could be sure of having reliable access to heath care, including prenatal care and well baby care, to plenty of food to feed their babies, and to day care. Pretending that only individual women, or married couples, can or should solve these problems by themselves is simply stupid. These are all factors in the decision to have children that government can make a substantial contribution to.
Second, notice that the one group who has a fertility rate above replacement level is Hispanics, but of course, our current Republican president has made it his policy to demonize Hispanic persons, building his entire campaign around idiotic policy proposals to try to minimize the number of Hispanic immigrants enter the country and making life difficult for the ones who are here. Canada, those wacky liberals to the north, are actually encouraging immigration. Can you imagine such a thing! How could they!
What will likely happen in 2019 after the CDC report is pretty much what happened after Roosevelt sounded the alarum about “race suicide” in 1905: nothing. We will continue to argue about immigration policy until someone, likely Democrats, finally manage to pass a reform statute. No telling what that will look like. Ryan left the House of Representatives pushing a covertly racist policy of handing a number of special visas to the Irish, which amounts to a backdoor maneuver to reinstate the explicitly racist National Origins Quota System for immigration to the U.S., which obtained from the 1920s until 1965, when the civil rights impulse led Congress to abolish it.
In the long run, regardless, we will likely muddle along as we always have, mostly just ignoring this alleged problem and watching the fertility rate either continue to decline or hold steady for the foreseeable future.