Political Animal


February 08, 2013 10:49 AM Dealing With the Non-Crisis In Fertility

By Ed Kilgore

Sometimes it’s in order to raise alarms about the sustainability of entitlement programs, and sometimes it’s just to scourge the “selfishness” of liberals and feminists. But a lot of conservatives these days really do get themselves agitated over an alleged crisis in U.S. fertility rates. One writer, Jonathan Last, has a much-discussed book out on the subject. And at TNR, Ruy Teixeira thinks it worth a sound refutation:

According to Last, fertility decline will inevitably lead to population shrinkage, which in turn will inevitably doom us to economic stagnation and social breakdown. In fact, he says, ongoing fertility decline has already saddled us with slow economic growth since the 1970s.
If Last’s claims sound hysterical and overwrought, that is because they are. Let’s start with his dire predictions about population shrinkage. It is true that fertility is lower now, at 1.93 children per women, than the standard replacement rate of 2.1. But it’s also higher than it was in the mid-’70s, when it bottomed out at 1.74. Indeed, the fertility rate has mostly risen since that period, with the exception of several years in the mid-’90s and the years of the Great Recession. And population has not gone down—it is up over 50 percent since 1970. The Census Bureau does project that the fertility rate will diminish, but only by a modest .09 over the next 50 years. And while the fertility rate is likely to remain below the replacement rate for the next 50 years, the Census Bureau expects us to add another 100 million people by 2060 due to immigration and “demographic momentum.” (Despite sub-replacement fertility rates, a relatively large proportion of the population will be in prime reproductive years for decades to come.) So much for population collapse.

Even if Last were right, notes Teixeira, his standard-brand conservative prescription of child tax credits against payroll tax liability is hardly only or most effective remedy for insufficient child-bearing: how about paid family lead and government-guaranteed quality child care? It seems inconveniencing private businesses or expanding government represent too high a cost to pay, and/or to not involve the requisite return to “traditional family values” that is the not-so-hidden agenda behind some of these conservative natalist efforts.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on February 08, 2013 11:31 AM:

    Pardon me if I wish the population WAS getting smaller.

    We 50+ year-olds can't find a job now - if the population was decreasing, that might give us some hope that there might someday be a chance for a job.

    The planet already has way too many people, and the way we're wasting our resources, the planet won't be able to support any more.

  • Peter C on February 08, 2013 3:18 PM:

    Anyone worried about 'fertility rates' is probably a racist.

    Humans do not have a fertility crisis; the world population is growing (probably too rapidly). 'Declining fertility' is only a problem if you put too great an emphasis on drawing distinctions between 'those people' and 'our sort of people'.

  • R on February 08, 2013 3:56 PM:

    Peter C is exactly right.

    I know I'm not the only one who wishes these loons would get pregnant, preferably with twins, complete with really bad nausea to start, then anemia and backaches and swollen ankles and heartburn and high blood pressure and varicose veins and stretch marks -- nothing out of the ordinary, of course. Oh, and no drugs for you, Jonathan, during labor; otherwise we'll have you arrested for endangering your child (isn't that what you conservative guys wanted when you said women should be punished for using drugs during pregnancy?). Oh, and by the way, we expect you back at work full time in six weeks (you're welcome), and don't be looking at us to help you find -- or pay for -- child care.

  • Russell Sadler on February 08, 2013 3:59 PM:

    We went through this song and dance with a guy named Ben Wattenberg in the 1990s. It was codswallop then and it doesn't improve with age.

  • emjayay on February 08, 2013 4:23 PM:

    Agreed: all the above comments are right. The world population is way, way over carrying capacity. The US and Europe are not largely at barely substinence level at best like most of the world because of innovation, sucking out our resources, and sucking out the resources of the rest of the world as well. And in the US we're not doing too great with the poverty thing.

    The world population should decrease by a lot. Will that be a problem for advanced countries? Yes, because of the proportion of oldsters to those in their employment years etc. Can we deal with it? Yes.

    Obviously the way the world is going massive worldwide ecological crashes caused by the way the advanced countries have achieved their living standards, and the populations of the rest of the world made possible by western based medical advances joining the party, will forcibly solve the population problem. Better that it is dealt with in rational ways before that.

    The quickly decreasing birth rate even in bastions of fundamentalism like the Middle East is a good sign. On the other hand, increases in birth rates in Europe are probably (someone really know?) due to Muslim immigration. Not good, in many ways.

    All the hand wringing is indeed I think about racism and xenophobia. Plus the worry that a lot of the population control is because of abortions.

    In regard to this and pollution issues and global warming and tax issues etc.: I'm old enough to remember when typical families were pretty darn happy with a nice little house without a whole lot of crap inside and a low priced car in the garage and a certain lack of designer clothes and multiple luxury vehicles and cruises to exotic locales. A McMansion is not a constitutional right for every American. A whole fuckin lot of belt tightening for the above median income folks in order to in fact help insure the continuance of the human race and the benefits of our economy being extended to everyone is not asking too much by any means.