Solving America's Demographics Problem Is Only Hard If You Rule Out Immigration

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We don't need to worry about convincing Americans to have more children if we let adults move here.

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(Reuters)

If there was a fire in your yard threatening to burn down your house, would you (a) go get a hose or (b) do a rain dance?

Easy answer, right?

At the moment, the United States has a nasty blaze building on its front lawn. It's a little fire called demographics. As the Pew Research Center recently reported, the country's birthrate has fallen to its lowest level since 1920, when we started keeping accurate tracking figures. Much of the recent drop is due to financial havoc the Great Recession wrecked on families. But the bottom line is that Americans have been having children at a dwindling rate for most of the last two decades, a trend that was interrupted briefly during the relatively flush times of the housing bubble. Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers are retiring into Social Security and Medicare benefits. Unless we can reverse course, we're looking at a future of slow growth and overwhelmed government budgets, as fewer workers try to support more seniors. 

We'd all like to contain this problem before it rages out of control. 

On Friday, I argued for a solution that I think is pretty akin to going and grabbing a hose: Let in more immigrants every year. Why should we? Simple: Because they're people! They're people who pay taxes (and, if they're here legally, pay even more taxes). They're people who are willing to move half a world away to make a new life, and are frequently harder working than U.S.-born Americans, whether they're here to run a corner store, code smartphone apps in Silicon Valley, or to care for somebody's grandmother at a nursing home. 

I spent very little time dwelling on what we'll call the rain dance approach -- tinkering with public policy and hoping that, sooner or later, Americans will suddenly start having Romney-sized families again, just like they did 40 years ago.  

On Sunday, though, the New York Times' Ross Douthat did just that, and his column illustrates just why doing a jig here is such a dead end approach

Douthat, to his credit, makes a number of very reasonable points. He says we should do more to support the middle class so that Americans can afford children, change the tax code to be more family friendly, and make sure workplaces are flexible enough that parents can care for their families without suffering professionally. 

That's all well and good. It's a policy platform you can get behind even if you don't think demographics are one of the top ten or 20 challenges facing us . The problem is that, even if the U.S. was to do all those things, it would still be fighting against the forces of history, which Douthat acknowledges in his own particular way:

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion -- a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It's a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Such decadence need not be permanent, but neither can it be undone by political willpower alone. It can only be reversed by the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made.

Douthat's both right and wrong here. He's right that the world has fundamentally changed. He's wrong to moralize by pinning it on "decadence" or "late modern exhaustion." It's modernity, period -- the same social and economic progress that made us wealthy to begin with. In country after country, education and birth control have allowed women to have fewer children and go work.* Those places have become richer in the bargain, reaping the benefits of a giant new female labor pool and families who can channel more of their income into raising fewer children, who end up better equipped to succeed as adults. As Megan McArdle explained in The Atlantic a few months back, countries that undergo this transition enjoy what's known as a "demographic dividend," where fewer children truly results in a better standard of living for everyone. The problems only emerge later, as they have for instance in Europe and Japan, when suddenly there aren't enough young folks around to support pensioners and grow the economy.  

The United States, in some senses, was an exception to these rules. Our total fertility rate -- the number of kids the typical woman has during her lifetime -- did plunge during the 1970s, but eventually rebounded. And as the rich nations of Europe struggled with childlessness, our rate hovered for the past two decades around 2.1 newborns per woman -- considered the magic number at which a population replaces itself. As Douthat acknowledges, we were largely buoyed by our openness to immigrants, who along with boosting our working-age population just by showing up, also tend to have more children than U.S. born Americans. Our religiosity may have helped, too. 

The recession brought migration from Mexico to a net halt and forced families to hold off on children. As a result, our fertility fell below replacement level. It may recover somewhat as the economy heals. Yet immigrant birth rates may not return to their previous peaks, particularly (again, as Douthat notes) if they continue to fall in their home countries. We certainly can't expect our current volume of immigrants to backstop America's population growth as it has in the past.  

Nor are we going to roll back the clock on our economy. We live in the era of the two-income household. Child care is expensive. So is health care and college, for those who can even contemplate it. Women and men both need to work to afford these things, for themselves and their children, and short of an enormous expansion of the social safety net, that won't change any time in the near future. Government intervention won't make the workplace more amenable to family care in any kind of short order, either. And we shouldn't expect, or want, women to readily give up the independence they've fought hard for in order to go back to being full-time caretakers, or for dads to happily pick up the role in their places. 

In the meantime, we still have a population problem to fix. It's not simply a matter of needing a bigger tax base for Medicare. It's that the U.S. economy needs a certain level of growth to survive. Without it, we won't be to pay down our national debt, at least not without eviscerating the rest of the federal budget, and risking our economy. We need it to fuel stock prices and make ourselves an attractive places for foreign businesses to invest. Ultimately, growth can come two places: better productivity -- which means workers using technologies like the Internet to become more efficient and produce more per hour of work -- or bigger populations. There's no sign of a miracle technology on the horizon that will radically alter U.S. productivity. So a growing population, while we learn to tame entitlement costs, reduce our deficit spending, and hopefully find ways to lessen economic growth's impact on the environment, is our next best bet.  

That means we have a choice. Either we hope that somehow, with enough government prodding and op-ed page hectoring, American couples will suddenly get baby fever. Or we simply let more people into the country, while we figure out how to address problems such as entitlement costs. What's worst about Douthat's thinking is that while he does seem to sense the former might be a lost cause, he doesn't seem to contemplate the latter.

You can do the rain dance, or grab some water to throw on the fire. Take your pick. 

_______________________________

*The process hasn't worked out identically everywhere. But even Iran -- not exactly anybody's idea of a "decadent" nation -- has seen fertility rates drop precipitously as women have become more economically empowered. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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