Total births in the United States fell last year to about 3.79 million, the smallest number in 32 years. The fertility rate hit a record low of 59 childbirths per 1,000 women. Americans are not having enough children to replace themselves.
This supposedly is bad news. Headlines are crying about a “Shortage of Americans” and “Demographic Decline.”
I don’t know. There seem to be plenty of Americans to go around. If population growth were the mark of national greatness, Oman, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola would be the stars.
Of course, a sharply falling population would be cause for concern, but that’s not the situation here. The United States has been below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman for decades. The total continues to grow because of immigration.
Fewer workers, we are told, can be problematic for an aging society. An expanding elderly population needs more taxpayers to support its health care and, in many cases, more caregivers to make meals. This is true, but these demographics were totally predictable. It’s odd to see handwringing over the need for more tax revenues shortly after our leadership pushed through deep tax cuts that will drain the Treasury of said revenues.
As for who will fill caregiving jobs, the answer may be those whose previous work was taken over by robots. And if caregiving pays too low to attract workers, the answer is to pay more.
Meanwhile, there are nuggets of very good news embedded in the U.S. population numbers.The birthrate among teens and unmarried women has plummeted. More women are having children when they’re older and, presumably, better able to support them. Also interesting, women with college degrees are having more children.
And thank you, Affordable Care Act, for making birth control, especially the long-acting kind, more available to women. That, not abortion, is behind the drop in unwanted pregnancies. Abortions are now at their lowest number and rate since around 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade.
Some causes of falling births were expected. The birthrate among Hispanic women — once high relative to the rest of the population — is now more in line with that of other groups.
Fewer Americans would be a welcome relief for those living in our highly congested urban corridors. One can argue that America’s big, open spaces provide room galore for a far bigger population, but somehow natives and the foreign-born alike choose to shoehorn into densely populated areas.
Sadly, the habit of associating a dipping headcount with decline still plagues city leaders unable to deal with the numbers they already have. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio was so upset by the census report showing that his city’s population shrunk by 40,000 — a mere drop in a sea of 8.4 million souls — that he questioned its methodology. At rush hour, some of the subway trains get so overcrowded the doors won’t close because passengers can’t get their hands and legs inside. And we can light a candle for the drivers consigned to the flames of perpetual gridlock.
Some take falling birthrates as a sign of lost confidence in the future. But those fretting about the millennials’ lack of enthusiasm for reproducing might investigate deeper. They might start addressing the onerous burden of student debt. Babies are expensive.
They might look into today’s crazy work schedules and, for those without college degrees or specialized skills, low pay. There was a time when parents could come home at 5:30 in the afternoon.
What makes for a strong society is healthy people, prosperous people, and happy people — not more people. Americans can put low birthrates at the bottom of their worry list.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.
IMAGE: A packed New York City subway car.