America has to confront another crisis in addition to the pandemic, the economic damage it’s caused, and the rise of white nationalist violence: We’re having fewer babies.
The latest census data from 25 states revealed that U.S. births in 2020 were down 4.3 percent from 2019 thanks in part due to the pandemic and recession. The lockdown didn’t inspire a baby boom, but instead led to a baby bust. There’s something about a deadly virus that has killed nearly 600,000 that dampens the mood.
This data tracks with plummeting birth rates in other countries as well, such as Japan, China, South Korea, and the European Union. Globally, the global fertility rate has halved over 50 years. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has to be at least 2.1 children per woman today so that one generation has enough to replace the other. As of January 2020, the U.S. fertility rate is below that number at 1.73 births per woman, down from 3.77 per woman over 60 years ago.
Your initial instinct might be to celebrate this news. Less babies means we can help fight climate change that is warming the Earth and will inevitably transform us into toxic avengers who eat soylent green. Also, overpopulation and high birth rates still exist in many countries, and there's a lack of resources and space to go around for all. Look at so many poor orphans, you might say, who still need homes and love. Look at us, the human species, destroying it all with our gasoline-guzzling SUVs, supersized meals, coal-burning, methane-releasing, reckless ginormous carbon footprints. No one should have babies!
However, Dowel Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California, suggests, “the birth rate is a barometer of despair,” which reveals “not a whole lot of things are going good and that’s haunting young people in particular, more than old people.”
Young people across the globe, especially in the United States, are opting out of having kids or delaying starting families. One of the main reasons is they simply can't afford it. There’s immense financial pressure, student loan debt, lack of savings and overall anxiety about their future and economic stability. It costs American parents an average of $230,000 to raise a child to the age of 18 in the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t offer mandatory paid parental leave. Also, the U.S. is the most expensive place in the world to give birth, where if you don’t have insurance it costs you around $32,000. Meanwhile, in countries with government subsidized health care such as Canada the average cost is $3,195. The U.S. also has the highest maternal mortality rate of all developed nations. Can you blame young people for not wanting to have babies?
It’s a stunning indictment of the world’s most powerful and wealthy country that aggressively makes it difficult for women and young families to procreate and help continue our absurd but lovable species.
As parents of three kids, my wife and I feel the pressure every day.
Two years ago, I walked on to the TED stage in Vancouver and delivered my talk, “The Case For Having Babies.” The day of my speech my wife told me doctors confirmed my then-2-year-old daughter Nusayba had Stage 4 liver cancer which required intense chemotherapy and a full liver transplant. My wife and I, floored by the tragic news, both agreed we didn’t regret the decision to have kids and would do everything in our power to help Nusayba live and thrive.
Personally, having children was the best decision of my life. It was an audacious act of hope on our part and a major risk. I also acknowledge it’s a deeply personal choice and everyone’s individual reasonings must be respected. Before you roll your eyes, and correctly ask, “Why is a man telling us to have kids?” please just stay with me for a moment before clicking away in disgust. My entire TED talk was in fact a Trojan horse meant to highlight the inevitable consequences of low birth rates in certain countries, reflect on how this will impact present and future generations, and ask what remedies, if any, exist to stave off a potential crisis.
If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all connected, both at home and abroad. Each generation depends and relies upon the other for love, comfort, help, money, and survival. The global declining birth rates prove it. What happens when the TFR stays below 2.1? A destructive domino effect. Shrinking populations across the world’s biggest economies will lead to rising labor shortages. Fewer workers means less tax revenue to invest in safety net programs that provide benefits like pensions to an aging population that is living longer. This in turn creates massive burdens on our health-care system and also imposes more pressure upon a younger population already stifled with less economic opportunities.
We’re seeing the catastrophic impact of declining birth rates in countries like Japan, where the situation is so dire it’s referred to as a “demographic time bomb.” Japanese experts have created a doomsday clock predicting when Japan will go “extinct.” In Japan, they are now selling more adult diapers than infant ones. An OECD report warned that, “as Japan’s elderly population is projected to reach nearly three-quarters of the working-age population by 2050, using all available talent in the labor market is key to overcome labor shortages.” The consequences of a declining birth rate in one of the world’s biggest economies will reverberate globally, and portend a trend that will also impact China.
In 1979, China attempted to get ahead of its surging population with its controversial “one child policy,” which ultimately backfired. Even after ending the policy in 2015, its birth rates have been declining every year to the point state propaganda slogans are begging couples to “have children for the country.” China is now the world’s second-largest economy with a growing elderly population; by 2050 there will be nearly 330 million Chinese over the age of 65.
The United States now joins China, Japan, and the members of the European Union as countries facing serious long-term challenges with aging populations. The latest data reveals there are now more Americans aged 80 and older than 2 or younger. If the situation is so dire, why aren’t we promoting policies that help Americans who want to have kids?
Well, you can start by thanking Republicans, who are absolutely obsessed about America’s “baby bust” problem but remain more committed to political obstructionism, greed, and xenophobia. Republicans like Paul Gosar and former congressman Steve King are terrified that white babies are being “replaced” by Black and brown kids and thus destroying “Western civilization.” White nationalists’ main propagandist, Tucker Carlson, once alleged that immigrants are responsible for driving down wages, which hurts white men as potential spouses, “thus reducing fertility.” Shockingly, Carlson, who said white supremacy is a hoax, is both ignorant and wrong on demographics and immigration.
Instead, a major reason why U.S. birth rates have gone down is due to a slowdown of immigrants coming into the country, and as a result of Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant policies. Instead of being “invaders,” these immigrant workers are vital to the survival of certain rural communities who have been hollowed out by the recession and globalization. In fact, high levels of immigration have saved the U.S. from the negative economic impact that has hit other countries, such as Hungary. In that EU country, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, like his white nationalist brethren across the Atlantic, is desperate to avoid the immigration of non-white Europeans, especially Muslims, because he doesn’t want the color of white Hungarians to be “mixed with those of others.”
However, no country in the EU has a fertility rate high enough to replenish its population without immigration. (Europe, you’re welcome. Sincerely, the Muslims.)
Orban, who has taken a sledgehammer to Hungary’s democracy, is at least more generous than Republicans. He’s willing to offer subsidies to incentivize Hungarians to have kids, such as reducing mortgage and car payments for parents. Meanwhile, zero Republicans voted for Biden’s stimulus package. At Biden’s address to Congress earlier this week, when he mentioned immigration reform, Rep. Lauren Boebert responded by taking out a Mylar blanket used in shelter facilities to promote hysteria about the non-existent “surge” at the border. At least she was awake compared to Ted Cruz, who slept, and other “pro-family” Republicans, who mostly tweeted and didn’t pay attention to Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that allows provisions for national paid family and medical leave, child care subsidies, universal prekindergarten, and two years of free community college, a necessary and urgent progressive platform that will not only help families struggling under immense financial pressure but will have the added benefit of defusing this impending demographic time bomb.
If Republicans are truly concerned about the baby bust, either due to their desire to create a white nationalist utopia or help the nation’s long-term economic survival, they would be wise to pay attention to studies that have shown that fertility rates are actually lowest in countries with rigid family structures, but highest in countries where they allow women to combine work with bringing up children. Both China and Japan are now researching how to close the gender pay gap, include more women in the workforce, incentivize employment for the elderly and create better working conditions for the youth.
Instead of creating policies that treat human beings as problems that need to be solved, controlled, ranked by their economic productivity or reduced to digits on an excel sheet, we need to create and implement humane policies that reflect Americans as part of a connected, global community. Helping our youth, our families, our elders, our women, and immigrants is actually the best long term investment to literally and figuratively grow our future generations.
Biden’s American Families Plan is a step in the right direction. Not only is it reflective of a sane and generous country that is willing to invest in American families, but it is also the best way to be “pro life.” Republicans would be wise to help him pass it in the Senate if they are truly concerned about turning this baby bust into a baby boom.