Yes, it’s what America is all about; but it’s also in our best interest
The New York Times recently reported that the U.S. is currently experiencing a dramatic decrease in our birthrate. It has dropped to the lowest point in 32 years, and is at a level where the generation is not producing enough offspring to replace itself.
The explanation many give for this decrease has to do with the Great Recession. As a result of the destruction of so much wealth for everyone except the wealthiest Americans, it takes young people longer to reach the milestones of adulthood such as finishing college, a good job, getting married. These achievements are often seen as precursors to parenthood. Delaying these events thus leads to young people waiting longer to have children, often reducing the number of their offspring.
Young Americans were even more direct than the researchers. The number one reason people gave for not having children, with 64% stating this reason, is that children are too expensive. It really is about economics.
In America, we have made it shockingly difficult to raise children.
Where other countries provide free or low cost childcare, paid parental leave, and free higher education, all these things are extremely costly in America. There is the joke that in America, we care about the child… until it is born. As a result, it is not surprising young Americans view raising children as a cost-prohibitive endeavor.
From the big picture perspective, however, low birthrates are common among the most developed countries. This is due to the fact that in developed countries, children tend to survive babyhood and there is less need for child labor. Those are both good things. But the unintended consequence of these developments is a declining birthrate.
Indeed, among native-born Americans, the birth rate has been below the replacement rate for some time. It is only among immigrants and the poor that the birth rate is above the replacement rate. Perhaps, then, the declining U.S. birthrate might also have something to do with the pressure this administration is placing upon immigrants.
Whatever the cause, this is no mere academic discussion. Countries with low birthrates are facing demographic crises. Japan, for example, has a declining population. This is rightfully viewed as a serious national crisis. Since medical technology has become so adept at keeping people alive longer, Japan has a seriously aging population. The result is more retirees supported by fewer and fewer working adults. The inevitable result is less support for seniors, higher taxes for those still working, or some combination of the two.
Economic growth is also linked to population growth.
There are four factors that impact economic growth: land, labor, capital and technology. Land isn’t increasing, and capital only increases as a result of economic growth. Thus, the two factors that can add to economic growth are an increasing labor supply and improving technology.
For much of history, technology changed little, meaning that economic growth per capita was limited, at best. People in the late middle ages, for the most part, lived very similar lives to people in prehistoric Egypt. Until the Renaissance, the last great technological advance was the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.
But then, starting in the Renaissance and accelerating since then, technology has allowed us to dramatically increase the wealth of people above and beyond what could be accomplished through simply increasing the number of workers. That change is what has generated the wealthy society we live in today.
But what happens if the number of workers declines? Will the economy shrink or can technology advance enough to fill the gap? Although the answer is unclear, economists are concerned.
France and Scandinavia took dramatic steps to avoid the crisis Japan currently faces. Starting in the 1980s, they implemented policies aimed at encouraging childbearing. These policies have been very successful, turning around these countries’ declining birthrate and making France in particular a model for the world. These policies, by the way, are exactly the kinds of things we refuse to fund in the United States.
Despite the success in France and Scandinavia, Europe overall faces a looming demographic crisis.
So how did the United States dodge this bullet? One word: immigration.
As stated above, immigrants and the poor tend to be the ones having children in America. Children of the poor, especially in light of our anti-child policies, tend not to do particularly well in America. Many of these births among the poor tend to be unintended pregnancies, and research shows that poorer women suffer when they have unintended births — as do their children. Research shows that women with unplanned pregnancies are more likely to smoke, drink, and go without prenatal care. Their births are more likely to be premature. Their children are less likely to be breastfed, and more likely to be neglected and to have various physical and mental health effects. Then, reinforcing the cycle, the very fact of having a child increases a woman’s chances of being poor.
Children of immigrants, however, tend to be model citizens. Indeed, the children of immigrants tend to be much more highly educated than children of native-born Americans. As a result, the minds capable of generating the technological advances that will help our society advance tend to be the children of immigrants.
Immigrants themselves also contribute positively to society. They cause less crime than the native born, and immigrant men work at a higher rate than native-born men.
The point of all this is that our continued economic growth requires immigrants. The fact that Europe and Japan have been less welcoming to immigrants than the United States has been the major cause of their demographic crisis. But that may be changing. With U.S. policy becoming more hostile to immigrants, a growing number of them are looking to go to Europe, something we as Americans should be concerned about. Without the dynamism immigrants bring to our country, we will find ourselves fighting the demographic challenges other developed countries struggle with.
Interestingly, the argument politicians use to justify anti-immigrant policies is a canard. Research has shown that immigrants do not hurt the job prospects of low-skilled native-born Americans. There are several reasons for this fact, but they tend to be less-skilled than the lowest skilled native-born workers, and the U.S. economy is so big we can absorb them without disruption to others. As a result, there are very few low-wage workers who can credibly claim that immigrants took their jobs.
Instead, I would argue that the reason for anti-immigrant feeling among the poor has to do with that green monster: jealousy. Immigrants, as stated above, start out with lower skills than native-born Americans. But within a generation, immigrants tend to far outstrip the achievements of the native-born.
Such jealousy is self-destructive, however. If native-born Americans want our economy to generate more jobs, and for our society to adopt more child-friendly policies, they stand a better chance of succeeding in those goals by making common cause with immigrants rather than with the very rich, whose goal is self-enrichment rather than building up our country as a whole. Indeed, it is likely that discovering this commonality is one of the great fears of the very wealthy who seek to continue the exploitation of both the working poor and immigrants.
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