The birth rate is plummeting in the United States too: children are seen as a sacrifice, forcing women in particular to give up something else: prospects (illusions?) of career and income, more free time, other opportunities; women are therefore choosing to marry later, or not to marry at all, and in any case not to have children, even though they can afford it economically. This teaches that the birth rate will not recover by acting only on the albeit necessary revision of family taxation, in the U.S. and even more so in Italy and old Europe: a “new narrative” is needed first, pro-family and pro-birth.
By Maurizio Milano
The most serious problem afflicting developed countries is the plummeting birth rate, which is falling almost everywhere below the “replacement rate” that would keep the population constant in the absence of migration balances: that number is about 2.1 children per woman. The major industrial countries are all well below that level (in Italy we are close to 1.25), and the trend is further downward, even accelerating after the health crisis.
Even the United States, which until fifteen years ago had a balanced birth rate, has since the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009 begun to fall in line with the rest of the world, experiencing a sharp drop in the “total fertility rate” which has fallen below 1.7 children per woman and therefore insufficient to ensure generational turnover.
A superficial explanation might see a cause-and-effect relationship: there was the economic and financial crisis, so families stopped having children.The crisis certainly contributed to the decline in the initial phase, but despite the strong economic recovery after 2010, and the fact that U.S. incomes have recovered to pre-CoViD record levels, providing better living standards than in previous decades, the birth rate has continued to decline. Nor have there been any effects related to changing government population policies over the years.
In a paper published in the “Journal of Economic Perspectives” by economists Melissa S. Kearney, Phillip B. Levine and Luke Pardue, they analyze the causes of the sharp decline in fertility rates in the United States between 2007 and 2020, that is, since the Great Recession developed after the collapse of sub-prime mortgages and the bankruptcy of the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers. The collapse in the birth rate particularly affected women of Hispanic origin, who began to assume the same lifestyles as their peers of other ethnicity and culture. Empirical evidence, however, shows that the reduction in U.S. fertility was generalized because it affected different groups of women, from teenage girls to highly educated white women. The “nuptiality rate” has also collapsed. One of the most certain correlations is the one that links fertility to marriage, because a married woman tends to have on average about twice as many children as an unmarried woman: consequently, if marriages decline, or if they are postponed to an increasingly older age, one can be sure that birth rates will also suffer a negative backlash. And this is what has timely happened in the United States and, for many years before, in Italy as well.
The research highlights how one of the causes that negatively affect the birth rate, far more than the costs directly related to child support and education, concerns the life “opportunities” that must be given up-true specifically for women-in order to start a family: from prolonged education to increased career, income and leisure opportunities. From a mechanical point of view, the decline in the birth rate can thus be attributed, according to the researchers, to a “shift in priorities” in the female population, particularly of younger women, who appear less likely to invest time, effort and resources in taking in and raising children. In fact, the decline in the birth rate is due more to the lack of new first-born children than to the lack of children after the third: thus, it is not the large families that have stopped growing, but it is the new families that have not started procreating. The Americans, in short, are beginning to look more and more like us Italians and Europeans on this point, and that is not good news.
The three economists’ analysis concludes with a consideration of possible actions to be taken. If the root causes are cultural, and not economic-financial, as is now proven, reversing the trend will not be limited to rebalancing public interventions. There is no doubt that children are a cost: even, in an advanced society, reasoning in terms of cold accounting they may even appear to be a “sunk” investment, at least for the family. Nevertheless, it is not the richest countries and the wealthiest social classes that give rise to large families: rather, the reverse happens, so much so that, as economic conditions increase, the number of children per family generally decreases.
A review of taxation taking into account the contribution to the common good of families with children, considering the family as an “economic subject,” is certainly desirable, and necessary: however, we cannot delude ourselves that a tax adjustment alone will be sufficient to encourage people to give birth to children. In fact, it is easier to discourage birthrate than to promote it, as the Chinese experience also teaches. What is needed instead is a “paradigm shift,” a new narrative – to use a fashionable expression – in favor of marriage, the natural family and life.
To the U.S. economists’ analysis, which stops at 2020, I would like to add a consideration of the developments of the past three years.
We are immersed in a permanent state of uncertainty and fear, fueled by often obsessive and alarmist mass media communication. First, with the health crisis; now, with climate millenarianism that is spreading, starting in the United States, a new pathology: eco-anxiety. If the planet is really close to the apocalypse, what is the point of having children? In the West there are those who say that “the greatest gift of love you can give your first child is not to have another”, since, “to save the only planet you have you have to have one child” (See Bridget McGovern Llewellyn, One Child One Planet, ed. Emerald Shamrock Press, Phoenix 2009). It would be necessary to overcome “prenatalism”, that is, “the social pressure to have children” and move from “anthropocentrism” to “eco-centrism,” and thus reduce family size and consumption to combat “social injustice toward social justice” (Cf. Population Balance, Shrink Toward Abundance). To combat climate change and save the world from imminent ecological catastrophe, it is therefore necessary – in a kind of returning Cathar heresy – to “refuse to procreate” (Cf. The Birthstrike Movement).
The younger generations are those most at risk of falling victim to such propaganda, thus exacerbating the trend toward childlessness. While the world struggles against Co2, we forget the empirical evidence of the tragic consequences, including economic and social consequences, of demographic collapse: if only because of the pension, health and welfare costs that are rising due to the growth of the elderly population and are being passed on to a continuously shrinking “Wpa” (Working Population Age) due precisely to denatality, as the demographic “pyramids” turn into “mushrooms”, with more and more elderly to support and fewer and fewer young to do so.
Without a resumption of birthrates, the social, economic and political model of developed countries is inevitably destined to wear down more and more, until it implodes. These are not “religious” issues: this is where our future is at stake.
In conclusion, if the root causes of denatality are lato sensu cultural, any action that does not also – and especially – act at that level is inevitably doomed to failure. We cannot delude ourselves: it will not be economic aid that will lift families; if anything, it will be families that will lift the economy.
Friday, August 25, 2023