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Missing but Wanted: Children

Partisan explanations for why birth rates are falling miss the true sources of a cross-cultural trend, and the possible solutions

Michael Lind
April 17, 2023
Michael Lind
Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.
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Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock
Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock

What if those in authority declared an apocalypse—but the wrong one? The trans-Atlantic establishment preaches that the most important problem facing the world today is global warming, but meanwhile the fertility growth rate in the U.S. and Europe has collapsed. From a radical environmentalist perspective it may be a good thing that fewer people are having kids, which is why so little effort has been made at reversing the trend. And yet, most people, even educated Westerners, still report that they do want children, and population growth—plague upon the planet though we humans may be—remains indispensable for economic growth. So it is worth considering how we got here and what kinds of policies might support family formation and population growth.

In the U.S. and Europe, fears of the “population bomb” leading to overcrowding and mass starvation, coupled with concerns about the environment, made anti-natalist attitudes prevail on the left starting in the late 1960s. Just as familiar on the right has been alarm about a too-generous welfare state allegedly encouraging welfare-dependent single mothers to have children out of wedlock. At the same time, many feminists have been not only hostile to husbands and fathers—“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”—but also to children, viewed as inconvenient obstacles to personal self-realization in paid careers outside the home.

But the world has changed, even if the anti-natal conventional wisdom of Western elites has not. The population bomb fizzled. The global fertility rate has dropped to slightly above 2.1 children per woman, needed for stability. In most of the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa, TFR (total fertility rate) has been below the rate needed for national replacement for some time. In 2023 the fertility rate in China is 1.705, only slightly higher than the rate of 1.66 in 2021 in the U.S. In Iran, the fertility rate is just at replacement and in long term decline.

Right-wingers who blame falling U.S. fertility on feminism and sexual liberalism are refuted by the example of China, with its all-male leadership and its campaign against male effeminacy. If fertility rates are collapsing in authoritarian communist China, the neoliberal capitalist U.S., and theocratic Iran, the explanation has to be global and transcultural.

Are low and falling birth rates a matter of changing preferences in the number of children that people want? As the demographer Lyman Stone has pointed out, in the United States and throughout much of the world today there is a large gap between desired fertility—the number of children women say they want—and the number they end up having. In 2010, ideal fertility was nearly 2.4, well above replacement, but projected completed fertility was 1.8 (today it has fallen to 1.7).

Using 2010 data, Stone in 2018 estimated the number of “missing-but-wanted children” in 2010 as 270 million—many of these in the developed countries of North America, Europe, and East Asia.

While a few radical Greens might welcome a decline in human numbers, if not human extinction itself, the leadership in most countries does not want the national population to shrink and disappear. Strategies for preventing national population implosion do not map neatly across conventional ideas of “left” and “right.” There are three conceivable strategies, which might be called “sectarianism,” “immigrationism,” and “pro-natalism.”

The exception to the rule that fertility falls below replacement in modern societies is provided by sectarian communities like the Amish and Hasidim and Haredim, for whom propagation is a religious imperative. In 2020 there were 344,670 Amish people in the United States.

For the last century, the Amish population has doubled approximately every 20 years. If this continues, then according to one estimate, in 2220, two centuries from now, there will be 358 million Amish Americans.

Thanks to the nature of exponential growth, barring other factors, like repression or a lack of retention of children in the faith or the exhaustion of Earth’s carrying capacity, the Amish population could grow to 11.4 billion by 2320 and 183 billion in 2400 CE.

Be fruitful and multiply indeed! The political scientist Eric Kauffmann, in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? has observed that the most conservative members of almost every religious tradition are on course to outnumber their more liberal coreligionists. But the sectarians are so small in number today that religious differentials in fertility are unlikely to compensate for societywide fertility decline for generations, if at all.

Immigrationism is the answer to declining native fertility that is favored by most of the trans-Atlantic establishment. Immigrants will be brought in to maintain population levels, as national birth rates fall.

In theory, this could take a variety of forms. But in practice Western immigration policies are subordinated to the interest of Western employers in preventing tight labor markets that might lead to worker leverage and wage increases. As a result, legal and illegal immigration to the West tends to be dominated by single, working-age adults, who are paid poorly, lack benefits, and allegedly do “jobs that nobody else wants to do.” (Often these are jobs that were once desirable and paid well but were destroyed by union-busting, substitution of citizen-workers by legal or illegal immigrants, or both.)

America’s employer-manipulated immigration policy skews the sex ratio. In 2020 in North America (U.S. and Canada) there were 124 Mexican immigrant men to every 100 Mexican immigrant women.

Among so-called “guest workers”—that is, indentured servants bound to sponsoring employers or labor contractors—the sex ratio is even more extreme. In 2018 among H-1Bs, who are heavily represented in the tech sector, the male-female ratio was 75:25. In 2019, only 12% of H-2A workers (seasonal agricultural work), who account for around 10% of the U.S. agricultural workforce, and only 3% of H-2B visa workers (seasonal nonagricultural work) were female. Among illegal immigrants, males outnumber females for all age groups except for those over 55.

The economic benefits of mass immigration are grossly exaggerated, by both the cheap-labor libertarian right and the open-borders utopian left. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the median incomes of native-born Americans ($28,000) was “starkly different” from that of foreign-born Americans ($20,400). One reason is lower education levels among immigrants.

In addition to being less educated, immigrants to the U.S. are more likely to depend on welfare than native-born households. In 2018, at least one major welfare program was used by 49% of all immigrants (naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, and illegal immigrants) and by only 32% of households headed by a native-born citizen.

Most people, even educated Westerners, still report that they do want children, and population growth—plague upon the planet though we humans may be—remains indispensable for economic growth.

Are present or higher levels of immigration necessary to maintain the worker-retiree ratio, so that Social Security and Medicare are solvent in the future? This talking point is popular among open-borders progressives and cheap-labor libertarians, but it is misleading for multiple reasons. First, relatively modest increases in taxes can solve the major problems with Social Security and Medicare. And low-wage immigrants contribute less to Social Security and other entitlements than they are likely to take out when they retire. As a result, enormous increases in immigration-driven population growth would be necessary to produce small savings in entitlements, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Projection Branch:

The differences in population are indeed stark, with the high-migration assumption yielding nearly double the [U.S.] population produced by the low-migration assumption in 2100. International migration may address a high dependency ratio decisively in the short term, yet is highly inefficient in reducing it over the longer term …

Current U.S. immigration policy, then, creates a population of surplus males by skewing the sex ratio, even as it increases wage inequality, lowers educational levels, and increases welfare-state dependency while postponing the insolvency of major entitlement programs by a negligible amount.

Even worse, if the goal is to stabilize the national population, after a generation or two the descendants of immigrants tend to adopt the low-fertility behavior of U.S. natives. So it is necessary to import wave after wave of new immigrants, to replace the previous wave of immigrants and their progeny whose numbers are shrinking. Like all Ponzi schemes, immigrationism as a solution to below-replacement national fertility is destined to break down eventually, although it might work for a few generations or even a few centuries.

The pro-natalist alternative is not in itself incompatible with immigration. In theory a country could combine both methods of population growth—higher birth rates among natives and naturalized immigrants, and mass immigration. Indeed, access to family benefits and subsidized or free childbirth on the part of immigrants as well as natives could be part of a package to attract more legal immigrants. (Voters in all democracies are likely to resist turning their country into a welfare magnet for unauthorized immigrants who break immigration laws.)

But the more common form of pro-natalism in the U.S. and Europe is socially conservative and seeks to strengthen the biological family. A growing number of social conservatives and populists support the idea of a family wage that can support a one-earner, two-parent family. The very idea of a two-parent, one-earner family is abhorrent to the alliance of the radical feminist left and the employer lobby, which wants all mothers of young children in the work force, except for a brief period of family leave following birth.

During the culture wars of the late 20th century, the TV character Murphy Brown popularized the idea of unwed motherhood as a lifestyle choice by elite professional women. But in fact college-educated professionals of both sexes are more likely to be married than working-class Americans. And the birth rate among married Americans has remained steady for decades, even as it has declined for the unmarried.

But even among the married, the birth rate has fallen because of marriage at later ages. Women now outnumber men in universities and many professions, and tend to delay marriage until they have graduated and established themselves in a career, with fewer child-bearing years, even with advanced technology.

Meanwhile, working-class Americans without college degrees are more likely to have broken marriages or never to marry at all. Those on the right who argue that married people are less likely to be poor confuse correlation with causation. They ignore the fact that poor people are less likely to be married because their wages are low and often intermittent. It is patronizing for conventional conservatives to misuse statistics to argue that two insecure people with unsteady, low-wage jobs who cannot support themselves will magically obtain economic security merely by marrying. And if the wages of each were adequate only to support one person, the newlyweds could not afford children without the kind of socialization of child care costs that progressives and some conservatives support.

One possible pro-natalist institution would be a family wage or breadwinner wage, capable of paying not only for the worker’s expenses but also those of several children and a spouse who stays home or works part time during the early childhood years. How much would this cost? MIT’s Living Wage calculator does the math for different locations in the U.S. According to CNBC, in 2021 the most expensive place to live in the U.S. was San Jose, California, and the least expensive was Buffalo, New York. We can ignore Silicon Valley and look at cheaper places—say, Cleveland, Ohio, the third-least expensive.

According to the MIT calculator, the hourly wage as a living wage needed for a two-parent family with two children and one worker in Cleveland would be $36.41. This works out to $75,732.80 a year before taxes, above the median wage in Ohio of $51,435.00.

According to another calculator, this would put the family in the 56th percentile by household income in Ohio. This kind of family or breadwinner wage is not politically possible now or in the foreseeable future. What might be possible is a combination of a living wage for all working adults with social insurance for a limited time that pays enough to meet the needs of a working-class parent or other family caregiver until children are old enough for public or private school, after which the caregiver might work part time or full time. Among other things, a system like this could be neutral with respect to the gender or relationship of the caregiver, although some member of the family—a grandparent or a sibling, if not a spouse—should be required to work, so they are not viewed as freeloaders by their fellow citizens.

Few people realize it, but Congress has already created a subsidy for child caregivers—but only if the caregivers are paid workers, not parents or other relatives. The Dependent Care Tax Credit provides up to 35% of eligible child care for one child, up to $3,000. The government also subsidizes an employer-provided Dependent Care Flexible Savings Account (FSA). These programs symbolize the crusade of the Chamber of Commerce/radical feminist day care industry alliance against the one-earner family: millions in tax expenditures for paid child care for two-earner couples, not a penny for care provided by stay-at-home moms or other family members raising young children.

Higher-wage workers are more likely to be married, and married couples are more likely to have children. A consistent pro-family, pro-natalist program would unite the right’s support for the one-earner, two-parent family with the labor left’s support for higher wages instead of more welfare. A version of this approach—albeit one marred by discrimination against women as well as racism—existed in the U.S. between the New Deal and the beginning of the neoliberal era in the 1970s, a period characterized by historically low immigration, maximum unionization, a minimum wage that was nearly 50% higher in inflation-adjusted terms than today’s minimum wage, and a high number of one-earner, two-parent families.

Having collapsed to a historic low of 2.06, below replacement, in 1940, U.S. TFR shot up to 3.58 in 1960, before beginning a decline to 1.78 in 2020.

Historians and demographers debate the factors that influenced the postwar baby boom. But it is hard not to see a correlation between high birth rates and historically high wages resulting from private sector unionization and tight labor markets. Nor does it seem to be a coincidence that widespread low wages and insecure employment in contemporary America are correlated with lower marriage rates and declining birth rates in the worst-off members of the workforce.

Fertility rates in the U.S. and many other countries have dropped so low that it may be that national populations can be sustained in the years ahead only by some combination of pro-natal policies and immigration of some kind. Higher native TFR would mean that ethnic or religious changes wrought by immigration would be more gradual, reducing panic among the native-born at the prospect of being “replaced.” A country with near-replacement fertility might be more welcoming of immigrants to fill the gap. Immigrants and their families would also benefit from pro-family pro-natalism, unlike today’s immigrants, whose children and grandchildren, like native-born Americans, tend to have fewer children than they say they want

If working class Americans—including those who are native-born, naturalized citizens, and legal immigrants—were paid higher wages, would marriage rates and birth rates go up? Let’s raise wages and find out.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.