The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Topic: Falling Birthrates, Plummeting Economy

The News Story: U.S. Births Dip to 30-Year Low

The New Research: Roots of Recession

 

The News Story: U.S. Births Dip to 30-Year Low

“The birthrate fell for nearly every group of women of reproductive age in the U.S. in 2017,” dispassionately reports NPR, “reflecting a sharp drop that saw the fewest newborns since 1987, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” The newest numbers continue the trend of below-replacement-level fertility that started in 1971.

Women in their teens, twenties, and even thirties (a group that has seen rising birthrates for some years) all fell between 2016 and 2017. The only group which saw an increased birthrate was women in their forties—reflecting American women’s tendency to push back childbirth later and later. NPR concludes, “The numbers seem to correspond with what the Census Bureau and others have been predicting for years: America's population growth will increasingly depend on immigrants.”

And although many media sources seem relatively unconcerned about such dipping birthrates, research shows that we have great cause for alarm.

(Source: Bill Chappell, “U.S. Births Dip to 30 Year Low; Fertility Rate Sinks Further Below Replacement Level,” NPR, May 17, 2018)

 

The New Research: Roots of Recession

For decades, population-control zealots warned of dire consequences of more babies—famine, poverty, natural disaster, etc. Now, research warns about the social and economic risks of historically low birth rates in many industrialized nations. Two recent studies reflect those concerns.

The first of these is the effort of Edward Crenshaw of Ohio State and Kristopher Robison of Northern Illinois University to reintroduce sociological theories as explanations of economic growth. Using pooled time-series analysis of changes in real gross domestic product per capita of more than 100 nations for the years 1970 and 2000, their study finds that population growth is an independent and necessary driver of economic and social development: “The long-run consequences of population growth for societal advancement have been positive rather than negative. Historical population density clearly exerts a robust, positive effect on contemporary economic growth rates.”

Debunking Mathusian fiction that fertility growth leads to “adversity, poor labor absorption, lagging capital formation, and poor macroeconomic performance,” Crenshaw and Robison’s results reveal quite the opposite. “As a form of societal investment, long-run population increase forces adaptive differentiation and interdependency on societies, complexities that lead to higher surpluses and social-spatial characteristics that predispose these societies to accelerated integration into the modern world.” Moreover, their study explains why fertility decline might be beneficial in the short-term but “disastrous” over time: “Rapid growth in the dependent population may retard economic growth, but it probably does not actually impoverish a society. . . . If a society can hold its own economically during its baby booms, then it stands a good chance of ratcheting up its economic activity when these children finally enter the labor force.”

Another study, by S. Philip Morgan and Heather Rackin of Duke University, highlights more the fact of population change than its correlation with economic or social development. They put on the table for all to see the worldwide transition, since 1960, from high fertility to fertility decline. They come to the conclusion: “No twentieth century change has more profound implications or been more dramatic than fertility changes.” Among the determinants of fertility decline the Duke researchers identify is the rising median age of childbearing, a behavioral shift common to all Western nations. They concede that such postponement can be more dramatic in some countries, but nonetheless claim it can reduce the Total Fertility Rate of a country by 10 to 20 percent for up to two or three decades. It also raises the risks of difficulties in conceiving children and carrying them to term—and leads couples to revise downward (never upward) their intended fertility: “Thus the demographers’ adage: fertility delayed is (partly) fertility foregone.”

Given the findings of these two studies, is it any wonder that economic forecasters give increasingly dire predictions?

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson, “New Research,” The Family in America 24.4 [Fall 2011]. Study: Edward Crenshaw and Kristopher Robison, “Socio-demographic Determinants of Economic Growth: Age-Structure, Preindustrial Heritage, and Sociolinguistic Integration,” Social Forces 88.5 [July 2010]: 2217–40, and S. Philip Morgan and Heather Rackin, “A Half Century of Fertility Change,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 41.4 [Summer 2010]: 515–35.)