Americans had just 3.6 million babies last year, which is the lowest number since 1979 and, adjusted for population, represents the lowest birth rate on record.
That decline should be a matter of intense public concern. Attention naturally gravitates toward the immense and mostly negative fiscal, economic, and geopolitical implications. Even those consequences may pale beside the loss of vitality — very nearly a loss of literal vitality — for our civilization.
More immigration cannot supply our lack. The decline in birth rates is global. The average age of immigrants has been rising, and their average birth rate falling.
There are also many good reasons not to expect or even wish for a return to pre-industrial birth rates. The decline of child mortality, the shift away from an agrarian economy, and a hundred other large causes of lower birth rates are not going away.
But we do not have to accept today’s very low birth rate as inevitable. Surveys continue to find that Americans want larger families than we end up having. We want to participate in the human drama of children and siblings. Government policy may legitimately try to lower some of the obstacles to that desire, and can hope for more success than would be likely to greet a project of changing people’s goals.
Obstacles within the reach of policy include the cost of housing, especially in places with high rates of job growth. Merely relaxing the regulations that have done so much to raise that cost would do a lot of good. So would measures to expand alternatives to the college track to success, which doubtless plays a large role in the familial decisions of our upper middle class in particular. Expanding choices in primary and secondary education, and reducing the perennially explosive growth of college cost, would also help.
We have long advocated tax relief for parents, and additional relief for parents of large families, in recognition of the positive fiscal effect of parental investment in children. That lowering of burdens is especially important now that we are seeing so much less of that investment. Governments may, indeed, wish to consider providing direct economic aid to families beyond tax relief. These policies, in tandem, could enable some young people who want to marry and have children but do not believe themselves economically ready for it to get started. They could enable some wives to shift to part-time work in order to have more children. Enough such decisions, and the culture could shift to enable more of their type. By contrast, the case for using public money to subsidize abortion — already objectionable on moral grounds — is even less sensible in a country that is finding itself short of babies.
Which brings us to a final point. The fact that we want more children than we have, and the possibility that changes to government policies could shrink the gap, do not mean that our problem is solely economic. Aspects of our culture, not just our economy, tend to frustrate the desire for children. Reviving a marriage culture, which would do more than anything else to raise birth rates, would require something akin to a spiritual transformation. Politics and policy can help, but only to a point.