For years the birth rate has been declining across much of the industrialized world. In many Western European countries, Russia, and Japan birth rates have already fallen below replacement levels. The United States was an exception to the rule, but now birth rates here have fallen precipitously as well. Just how much depends on what part of the country that you look at, however.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of US births in 2017 was the lowest since 1987 at 3.85 million. The birth rate was 1,765 births per 1,000 women (1.765), which is well below the 2,100 births, an average of 2.1 children per woman, that represent a replacement level, the number of births needed to maintain the current population. In short, the native-born population of the US is declining.
Interestingly, the decline in birth rates was not consistent across the entire US. The Southeast and the Midwest had higher birthrates than the Northeast and West Coast, but only two states, South Dakota and Utah, had birth rates greater than the replacement level. The area with the lowest birth rate, the District of Columbia (1,421 births), had a rate that was 64 percent that of South Dakota, the state with the highest birth rate at 2,227 births.
Demographics also make a difference when it comes to fertility. Hispanic women had the highest fertility rate of any ethnicity in the study. In 29 states, Hispanic women surpassed the replacement rate. Black women reached the replacement rate in 19 states, but white women fell below replacement level in every state.
Women in rural areas had higher birth rates than urban women while women with higher educations often delayed having children or did not have children at all. The researchers also said that cultural, religious and economic differences affected birth rates for different regions of the country. They speculated that South Dakota’s high birth rate could be due to the economic boom there created by the oil industry.
While declining birth rates may excite people who believe that humans are destroying the planet and worry about overpopulation, the prospect of fewer Americans poses serious problems. One of the most obvious aspects is the effect that fewer workers will have on entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. These programs are funded by payroll taxes, but the big three entitlements are getting more and more expensive due to large numbers of retiring Baby Boomers. The shrinking workforce means fewer paychecks to withhold from and complicates the problem of funding the entitlement programs. A smaller workforce will contribute to a growing deficit unless the programs are reformed.
A smaller workforce also hurts in other ways. Fewer workers means that the national economy will likely produce less. This is especially true in industries where automation is not efficient or possible. Fewer people also means fewer entrepreneurs to start new businesses. Taking the law of supply and demand into consideration, if fewer workers are available then wages will probably increase, making goods more expensive.
One way to solve the labor shortage problem is to allow more workers to immigrate. This is the strategy that Western Europe has used. That has led to new problems since Europe’s closest sources of unskilled migrants are North Africa and the Middle East. These predominantly Muslim immigrants are not as easily assimilated as Latinos are in the US. Still, increased immigration to the US would further stoke tensions among the many Americans who are concerned about immigration and its effect on American culture.
But, like or not, American culture is changing either way. Much like the climate, our culture has been constantly changing throughout our history. We started as English colonies but our culture has been altered radically by large waves of immigration from Ireland, Eastern Europe, slaves from Africa, and now Central America. There were also smaller waves from Asia and the Middle East. Even though the United States started with Englishmen, the largest ethnic group today is Americans of German descent. Each immigrant went into the melting pot and changed American culture subtly but permanently.
Even without increases to immigration to fill the shortages in the workforce, American culture will change. The birth rate data shows that white women are having fewer babies than minority women. There is also a sharp increase in the share of multiracial and multiethnic babies born in the United States. Any way you slice it, America is becoming less white and that will change the national culture.
A final possible effect of the declining birth rate is that America may ultimately lose its position as the world’s superpower. The ability to direct world events depends both on the manpower to commit troops in far-flung parts of the world as well as the financial wherewithal to support them. A declining birth rate affects both. Along with a smaller workforce, a smaller population means a smaller pool of potential military recruits. A shrinking economy would mean that the military would probably shrink as well, otherwise it would become increasingly burdensome on America’s shrinking tax base.
If there is any consolation in America’s birth rate problem, it’s that we aren’t alone. Our competitors on the world stage are having the same problem and face the same difficulties. Russia’s birth rate hit a 10-year low at 1.75 and the country’s population shrank last year even after accounting for immigration. In China, the birth rate is even worse at 1.62. Both countries are frantically trying to encourage their citizens to have more babies and China has even reversed its infamous one-child policy. The United States may need to find ways to change our culture to encourage more children as well.