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.  

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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