Feature

Baby bust: The declining U.S. birthrate

The greatest threat to our nation’s long-term health may be what’s happening, or not happening, in U.S. bedrooms.

“More babies, please,” said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. While politicians wrangle over tax rates and spending cuts in Washington, the greatest threat to our nation’s long-term health may be what’s happening, or not happening, in U.S. bedrooms. A new study by the Pew Research Center found that the U.S. birthrate in 2011 was the lowest ever recorded, with only 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age—down from 71 in 1990, and 122 at the height of the postwar “baby boom.” Obviously, the economic downturn has led many couples to have smaller families or postpone the next kid. But many are forgoing children because of a growing cultural “decadence,” in which people live for their own pleasure, “while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.” With the “waning of religion in American life,” said Jonathan Last in WeeklyStandard.com, we’ve fallen victim to the “cult of the individual.” Americans are so focused on their own personal fulfillment that they can’t be bothered to raise a generation to replace them. 

By “Americans,” you mean “women,” said Amanda Marcotte in Slate.com. Invariably, when conservatives fret about the declining birthrate, they’re pining for the good old days when women stayed home and made Romney-sized families, rather than competing with men in the workplace. Half a century ago, child-rearing and homemaking were the only options open to women, said Jamelle Bouie in Prospect.org.Today, women are as free as men “to learn, work, and pursue their own ends,” and that is to be celebrated, not lamented. To attack the freedom to have a smaller family, or no children at all, as a form of “decadence” betrays a breathtaking hostility to women, and to modernity itself. 

Maybe so, said Jordan Weissmann in TheAtlantic.com, but the reality is that “we need more people.” If our fertility rate continues to lag, there won’t be enough young workers to support “aging Americans as they gobble up retirement benefits.” The U.S. could come to resemble “a nation-sized nursing home.” Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: immigration. To get more young workers, we can open our doors wider to ambitious families from other countries. Plenty of ambitious and fertile young people want to move to the U.S., said Ezra Klein in WashingtonPost.com. “The fact that our birthrate is dropping only strengthens the case for letting them in.”

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