America's birth rate fell to an all-time low in 2011, and the estimated total fertility rate—the number of children women in America will bear during their lifetimes—probably declined to just 1.9 in 2010, against a replacement level of 2.1. Is America heading towards European-style infertility, rapid aging, and eventual population decline? And if so, why is this happening, and what can be done to reverse it?
Adverse economic conditions may have persuaded families to delay childbearing; or the recession may have put a tailwind behind a long-term trend. It is hard to tell. The birth rate among Mexican immigrant women fell by nearly a quarter between 2007 and 2010, accounting for most of the decline. That might have economic causes, for Hispanics suffered disproportionately during the recession. The Pew Institute noticed that "States with the largest economic declines from 2007 to 2008, as shown by six major indicators, were most likely to experience relatively large fertility declines from 2008 to 2009." Something more disturbing may be at work, though. Latinas had a total fertility rate of 3 children in 1990 and 2.7 children in 2000, but only an estimated 2.4 in 2010.
It is possible that Mexican immigrants reflect the same trend that reduced the Latin American fertility rate from 5 children per female in the early 1970s to just 2.3 in 2010. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, American fertility held comfortably above replacement—in sharp contrast to Europe and East Asia—due to high fertility among Latin Americans and evangelical Protestants, who averaged 2.5 children when the last data were collected in 2001. Something like the "quiet revolution" in Quebec, where church attendance fell from 88% in 1960 to 20% in 1985, and fertility fell from 6 children to just 1.5, may have taken hold in the Hispanic world. It may be, then, that faith demarcates the boundary between more and less fertile Americans.
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There are indications, moreover, that the evangelical movement is failing to retain many of its children. According to a 2007 Pew survey, 32% of Americans aged 50 to 64 are white evangelicals, compared to just 13% of Americans aged 18 to 29. If the surviving pockets of faith and fertility erode, America's demographic profile will converge with Europe's, and the consequences will be dismal. America's Coming Demographic Disaster is the subtitle of What to Expect When No One's Expecting, a new book by Weekly Standard senior editor Jonathan Last. Like Ben Wattenberg's The Birth Dearth (1987), Phillip Longman's The Empty Cradle (2004), and several other popular treatments, Last's book warns that an aging population will overtax economic resources. Japan's far lower birth rate has produced pockets of urban collapse and deserted cities and neighborhoods, he notes, adding,
Even though we're in much, much better demographic shape than Japan, this is what we're up against in America. We don't have to worry about towns being turned into landfills.... What we're in danger of is having the government safety net disintegrate.
In 1960, five workers paid Social Security taxes for every one collecting benefits. By 2034, the number will fall to only two taxpayers for every beneficiary. Taxes will have to rise drastically to compensate. "With Medicare," Last observes, "the picture is even more bleak," as projected costs triple between 2010 and 2040.
Immigration looks like a prospective solution, but fertility rates are falling in countries likely to send immigrants to the U.S. "Within a decade or two," he claims, "every single country in Latin America will likely have a fertility rate below that of the United States. And at that point, these countries will have their own labor shortages." Longman made the same point in 2004.
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Last's guiding idea in this well-written and enjoyable volume is that the key to the problem is financial incentives. He argues that taxation and other factors promote what he calls "America's one-child policy." It's expensive to raise children, especially if mothers stay at home rather than work and forfeit nearly $900,000 of lifetime earnings. Reducing the cost of raising children must be the solution, Last believes, and he cites a number of plans, including Longman's to reduce Social Security taxes by the number of children in a family and Ramesh Ponnuru's proposed income tax credit for children.
Last also proposes three other measures to reverse population decline. One is to replace costly college degrees with inexpensive professional certificates. Another is to make commuting from the suburbs easier by spending more on highways or encouraging telecommuting. The third is to liberalize immigration.
One may argue the merits of these prescriptions, while still honoring the considerable light that What to Expect When No One's Expecting sheds on the fiscal side of the birth dearth. Nonetheless, there are some issues with the book's diagnosis. Last thinks the problem lies in the one-child family, the sort that he observed in the Georgetown neighborhood where he lived before decamping for the suburbs upon the birth of his second child. But the fact is that the least typical American family has one child. Families that have one child are most likely to have others. Among American women at the end of their child-bearing years, the 2010 Census shows, only 18.5% have had one child, while 62.7% had two or more children. Women who had children, that is, were three times as likely to have two or more than to have had just one. More American women had three children than had one child. That doesn't square with Last's belief that the incremental cost of children is the main factor suppressing fertility. What drags overall fertility down is the 19% of women who had no children at all.
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Last follows his economic argument to some eccentric conclusions. He speculates that children might be the cause of poverty. Citing 2008 census data on total fertility by income bracket, he writes: "In part, the poorer families may be poor because they have chosen to invest their money in children and richer families may be rich because they have not. In other words, the soaring cost of childbearing has created a gargantuan societal maladaption: Children have gone from being a marker of economic success to a barrier to economic success."
Total Fertility Rate by Family Income Bracket
Total Fertility Rate
$20,000 to $29,999
$35,000 to $49,999
$50,000 to $74,999
$75,000 to $99,999
$100,000 and over
Source: Jane Lawler Dye, U.S. Census Bureau
"Fertility of American Women: 2008"
But the data do not support that conclusion. Considering the high fertility of less-educated Hispanic immigrants who cluster in the lower income brackets, the fertility differential basically disappears. The reported variation of fertility among income brackets, moreover, is small compared to the standard error in the survey data.
Careless reading of data also undermines Last's discussion of fertility outside the United States. He lauds Georgia (population 4.7 million) as a model of successful natalism. But Georgia had only 12.9 births per 1,000 women in 2011, the same number as in Russia, which he derides as "the sick man of Europe." Strangely, he doesn't mention the single outlier in industrial-world demographics: Israel had 22 live births per 1,000 in 2011, and the total fertility rate for Israeli Jews stands at 3, by far the highest in the industrial world. Excluding the ultra-Orthodox, Israel's "secular" fertility rate is 2.6, much higher than that of any other industrial country. Fiscal incentives for fertility are threadbare in Israel—paid maternity leave is just 14 weeks compared to 47 weeks in Germany—so Israel's outlier success doesn't fit into Last's paradigm.
Last looks for explanations of fertility behavior in the minutiae of tax policy. Japan's efforts to reverse its catastrophic fertility decline failed, he argues, because its natalist programs failed to address "the root problem—marriage." "In 2004," he observes, Japan's "government abolished the tax break for wives earning small salaries, which had previously given some encouragement to married women who wanted to work part-time rather than full time." But well before this minor change in the tax code, Japan's total fertility rate had already fallen to its all-time low of 1.3.
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Last acknowledges cultural and religious influences on fertility, but mostly as an afterthought. They might be important, he allows, but there is nothing to be done about them:
Sure, it makes sense that we could increase American fertility if we could (1) strengthen the institution of marriage, so that more people got married and stayed married; and (2) make America more friendly to religious belief than it is now. (I'm not asking for a Yankee version of Afghanistan; something like the balance we had in the 1950s would be dandy.) But how do you influence marriage and religion in the public square? They're pulled along by massive invisible cultural undercurrents. There's no policy solution; you can't even consciously assemble a countercultural movement.
Yet, several recent studies from respected demographers show a strong association between fertility and faith. In a 2006 paper, for example, Tomas Frejka and Charles Westoff of the Max Planck Institute showed that frequency of attendance at religious services and family size are highly correlated. The difference
Mean Number of Children Born to Women Aged 18-44, by Frequency of Religious Observation
Attend Religious Services
More than once a week
Once a week
1-3 times a month
Less than once a month
Source: Max Planck Institute
between Europe and the U.S. is that only a sixth of European women in their child-bearing years say that religion is important to them, against half of American women.
The General Social Survey (GSS) at the University of Chicago yields a wealth of evidence of the faith-fertility relationship. For example:
- One of three families with no children says it is "not religious." The proportion falls to just one out of eight among families with four children.
- Among American families with no children, 41% say grace before meals. But 62% of families with four children say grace, and 86% of families with eight or more children.
- 45% of Americans with no children "strongly disagree" that there is a "God who watches over me." But 80% of adults with four children "strongly agree" with this belief.
- Half of families that never take part in religious activities have no children, but only a third of families with three children do not practice a religion.
Taking religious commitment into account along with socio-economic factors yields a far more robust statistical explanation of fertility than socio-economic factors alone. Part of Last's difficulty with the data stems from his reluctance to integrate non-economic factors into his analysis. His emphasis on "one child" is misplaced: America's average total fertility rate masks a great divide between traditional values and religious commitment, on the one hand, and postmodern mores, on the other.
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Which of these two Americas will prevail is impossible to predict, although the evidence suggests that traditional America has lost ground during the past several years. But it seems unduly pessimistic to claim that "you can't even consciously assemble a countercultural movement," given that American history is full of movements of moral and religious reformation. Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, offers us a manifesto for such a movement in How the West Really Lost God. Rather than an economic drain, children in her account are both witnesses to and progenitors of faith. Religious life and fertility, she contends, reinforce each other so profoundly that cause and effect cannot be separated: when we consider family life and fertility behavior, we are observing two facets of the same phenomenon, what she calls a "double helix" of mutual causation.
The Max Planck Institute study cited above and other related work are only a point of departure for Eberstadt's bold conjecture: that we learn faith from family life, and when we abandon the family, we are likely to lose our religion as well. People of faith are her target audience, but her review of demographic literature is so comprehensive and instructive that nonreligious readers will benefit from it as a work of reference.
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Economics are an afterthought for Eberstadt, for family life fulfills a human need so fundamental that it cannot be suppressed for long. In contrast to Last, who envisions a desultory rearguard battle fought out in the minutiae of fiscal policy, Eberstadt sees hope for a revival of family and faith arising from deeper human needs:
To the surprise of almost all demographers...the middle of the twentieth century saw a "baby boom" across the Western world...the family throughout history has shown a pattern of strengthening following periods of decay which have brought on mounting social costs—work highly germane to our own situation, and one more reason for believing that family decline, in Western Europe or elsewhere, may not be inevitable after all. As for the decline of Christianity, it too appears no more inevitable under the lens of history than any other movements famous for claiming inevitability on their own behalf.
The experience of childbirth itself evokes a receptivity to faith, she maintains:
The love that most parents bear for their children is the strongest emotion many people will ever feel. Perhaps it is too intense for many parents to believe that the life before them has a cold, finite end.... Many a mother and father staring at a newborn has had the sense that they are witnessing something that only a Creator could have made...the mother-child and father-child bond, as no other, appears to push at least some people towards an intensity of purposeful connection with the divine that they might never otherwise have experienced.
More than that, she adds, the "kinds of sacrifice of self that are often part of family life are fully consonant with the emphatic Judeo-Christian call to die to self and to care for the sick and weak."
Eberstadt quotes the historian Peter Laslett on the world before the industrial age:
Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar, faces.... That time has gone forever. It makes us very different from our ancestors.
She concludes that "Like no single force before it, the Industrial Revolution also contributed to family decline, upending families across the world as wage earners from the countryside left for cities to find work." This nostalgic view of a pre-industrial age of faith, though, is too simple. Although fertility declined during the industrial age, so did infant mortality. In many countries, families had more surviving children after industrialization than before. In the most noteworthy example (which Eberstadt does not cite), despite considerable net emigration, Germany's population growth rate accelerated at the peak of industrialization between 1850 and 1914.
In 1850, meanwhile, the total fertility rate (live births over a lifetime) for white American women was 5.42, but the infant mortality rate per annum was 22%. Black women had much higher fertility and infant mortality. By 1910 the total fertility rate had fallen to just 3.42, but infant mortality had fallen below 10%, so that families had greater certainty of raising children to adulthood, according to economist Michael Haines.
In the pre-industrial age, moreover, children had economic value not only as retirement insurance, but also as cheap farm labor; industrialization increased their value because child laborers earned more in factories than on farms. Damages were assessed for the accidental killing of children according to expected lifetime earnings and ranged between $2,000 and $5,000 during the early 20th century, sociologist Vivian Selizer reports.
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How different we really are from our ancestors is hard to gauge, for often we cannot tell whether their childbearing practice expressed faith and love, or merely habit and economic exigency. In several Western countries, including Spain, Poland, and Quebec, traditional life dissolved within a single generation somewhere between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, and some of the world's highest fertility rates suddenly became some of the world's lowest. The sudden collapse of religious as well as family life suggests that their earlier faith was fragile. In America, where faith was a matter of choice rather than compulsion from the outset, Christianity has proved far more robust. There is an additional complication: European nations often worshiped their own ethnicity with more fervor than they did the Christian God. Their subsequent loss of faith—as in postwar Germany—expresses pagan disappointment more than the end of Christianity.
As Eberstadt argues, there is one decisive example of fertility decline associated with secularization, namely, 19th-century France. A comparison with Germany is instructive.
Germany's population doubled between the 1848 Revolution and the First World War, while France's barely grew. She reports:
People stopped having babies earlier in France than in the rest of Europe. Illegitimacy rose also—from just over 1 percent in the early eighteenth century...to between 10 and 20% by the 1780s.... The family decline signaled by such changes then accelerated under the "reforms" of the French Revolution, which liberalized marriage laws to an unprecedented degree and further persecuted the institution hitherto most closely identified with defending "the family" as such: i.e., the Catholic Church.
She cites the historian David Garrioch's contention that the decline of Church influence also promoted "the adoption of birth control, in direct defiance of Church teaching."
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In a March 2012 study, Gilles Pison of the French National Institute of Demographic Studies wrote:
In the mid-18th century, women in both [France and Germany] had 5 or 6 children on average. But by the end of the century, the practice of birth control was spreading in France, and fertility fell from 5.4 children per women in the 1750s to 4.4 in the 1800s and 3.4 in the 1850s. In Germany, on the other hand, it was not until the late 19th century that German women, in turn, started to limit their family size. This timing differential is often attributed to the early spread of Enlightenment ideas across France, or to the lifting of religious constraints.
Secular government and official hostility to religion—not the degree of urbanization or industrialization—distinguished France from Germany during the 19th century. (England, which was far more urbanized and industrial than France, also maintained a higher fertility rate throughout the 19th century). "The big picture," Eberstadt concludes, "is very simple—and very suggestive. People stopped having babies in France earlier than elsewhere in Europe; they stopped getting married as often as they did elsewhere in Europe; and their religiosity declined earlier than elsewhere too." The dyad of faith and family, not economic conditions, explains the first great fertility decline in modern history.
What explains Germany's rising fertility rate during the same period, though? Germany also persecuted the Catholic Church after 1871 under Otto von Bismarck's Kulturkampf, although Christianity nonetheless remained a state religion on which civil society was founded. Elements of Germany's later turn to neo-paganism, though, already were endemic. It is possible that tribal self-confidence explains the German fertility advantage before World War I—that robust Teutonic neo-paganism trumped fading Gallic Catholicism.
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Eberstadt is more eager to preach than to predict. Demographers had no reason to expect the baby boom and the associated rise in religious observance during the early 1950s. There is reason to hope that it may happen again. "Remember" she writes, "that the last boomlet of faith across the West—during the years...immediately following World War II—remains something that happened in the lifetime of at least some people reading this book." American history, one might add, is punctuated by repeated Great Awakenings that revived religious commitment after long intervals of apparent indifference.
Eberstadt refers to the traditional family of the Christian West as the "natural family." That is a philosophical abstraction rather than an observation, given that the entire pagan world before Christianity reveled in "unnatural" practice. As she notes,
In the largely pagan world where Christianity first took root, as Roman writers themselves reported, infanticide was common; abortion was hardly unknown; births to unmarried couples abounded; divorce was a rather obvious solution to marital unhappiness, at least for men; and in certain classes, homosexuality was a familiar fact of life.
The Hebrew Bible is the first document in world history that subordinates sexual relations to family life, as a requirement of holiness rather than reason. Perhaps Judeo-Christian family life elicits religiosity precisely because it asks for greater-than-natural commitment in the first place.