Why the American Birth Rate Has Collapsed

Ross Douthat in the New York Times, discussing the recent news that the American birth rate, once resilient, has now collapsed–falling, all but incredibly, below that of Britain and France:

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.

Like Paul Rahe, I have some thinking to do.  In considering the country’s future, I can almost shrug off the recent political defeat.  I can’t shrug off “late-modern exhaustion.”

  1. Devereaux

    It’s not late modern exhaustion. It’s loss of faith.

  2. Pseudodionysius

    Breeding from behind.

  3. KingsKnight1

    I recall it being suggested that the welfare state in the form of Social Security was a great disinsentive to have children. If the state will take care of you, why go through the expense?

  4. Crow
    Devereaux: It’s not late modern exhaustion. It’s loss of faith. · 5 minutes ago

    The two are one and the same.

    The last men have invented happiness, and they blink.

  5. lakelylane

    I seem to remember a little Derbyshire in this regard, or can I say that out loud..

  6. Scott R

    Exhaustion for sure, but also: With abortion, morning after pills, “the pill” and an array of contraception, and pornapalooza offering “alternatives” to the real thing, happy accidents are fewer now.

    Both mine were accidents (sorry kids!). Without the “mishaps” would we have had kids? Probably. Maybe just one. Can’t be sure.

    In retrospect we wish we had more. But only in retrospect, and that’s the way it often goes – which is why blessed accidents are such a vital part of a healthy and fertile society.

  7. Mike H
    Well, Ramesh Ponnuru advocates for a $4000 per child tax credit to cancel out the tax bias against having children. We spend a lot of our own money on raising new taxpayers. The childless are getting a kind of free ride. I’m expecting my first kid in March. I think the problem is the expectations for parents now-a-days. Kids are made out to be way more work than they need to be. We need to make people understand kids will turn out OK without having to devote all your time to them. Brian Caplan is doing a lot to get this idea out there.  http://www.amazon.com/Selfish-Reasons-Have-More-Kids/dp/0465028616 He turned me from a 1-2 kid parent into a likely 3-4 kid parent without having to rely on some sort of faith based argument. More kids, less work per kid. More population, more economic growth, more technological advances, more happiness.
  8. AIG

    It’s basic economics. You ignore economics at your own peril. You also ignore the benefits of immigration at your own peril. Immigration is that “sacrifice” which made this civilization. It wasn’t breeding. 

  9. Southern Pessimist

    “The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion.”

    I wish I could write a sentence that was that strong.

    It is a strong sentence and a strong argument but fundamentally flawed. Decadence does lead to lower birth rates but that is confusing the symptom with the disease and equating correlation with causation.

    Spengler (David Goldman) has written a book, that is on my kindle que but not read yet, called, Why Civilizations Die, that posits that Islam is facing even greater drops in reproductivity than the Western world. I hope he is right.

  10. david foster

    There are a lot of issues involved in this…I do think loss of civilizational self-confidence is a factor throughout the West…one variable that is actually within the reach of policy is the state of the K-12 schools. A lot of these government schools are dysfunctional, and the choice for parents or prospective parents is (a)spend $10-20K/year/child on private school, or (b)move to a neighborhood (almost certainly a more expensive neighborhood) with better schools. 

    If you’re paying, say, $15K per child for private school, then for most people that will be a strong incentive to keep the number of kids small…and if you choose to move to a better-school neighborhood, then the variable incremental cost per child will be lower, but it will still be significant, and you will have a lot less disposable income to fund the other child-related expenses with.

  11. Matthew Bartle

    Not just rich societies, as Southern Pessimist just noted – I read that book. The birth rate in Iran has dropped just as much.

  12. Southern Pessimist
    Scott Reusser: Exhaustion for sure, but also: With abortion, morning after pills, “the pill” and an array of contraception, and pornapalooza offering “alternatives” to the real thing, happy accidents are fewer now.

    Both mine were accidents (sorry kids!). Without the “mishaps” would we have had kids? Probably. Maybe just one. Can’t be sure. · 20 minutes ago

    Scott, I think you could make some money if you were to trademark “pornapalooza”. 

  13. david foster

    I may have mentioned it before at Ricochet, but Arthur Koestler’s 1950 novel “The Age of Longing” is IMO essential reading for anyone doing some thinking about the West’s loss of civilizational self-confidence. I reviewed it here: Sleeping with the Enemy.

  14. Give Me Liberty

    Rome outsourced its military obligations to the barbarians with disastrous results.  We are outsourcing procreation to immigrants–hope it works out for us. 

  15. No Caesar

    When the economic future looks bad, birth rates fall.  Things have looked bad for several years now and they look like they’ll be worse in the future.  People don’t want to bring kids into a future of scarcity and paying for the bills of others.

    Those of us with kids are looking at how we can protect them from the upcoming crushing debt burden. 

  16. Rachel Lu

     I don’t discount the spiritual diagnosis, but I do think it possible to build a more family-friendly culture in which people view parenthood more positively. As Douthat says, part of it is just economic. When childbearing means more expenses but also, very likely, less earning power, it’s hardly surprising that some people opt not to take that hit.

    But we also need to think of more ways to promote the idea that parenthood is a valuable and honorable social contribution. I still find that a surprising number of Americans see parenthood almost on a par with any other personal hobby. They complain about having to support public schools and the like when “I’m never going to need them.” It seems they haven’t considered that they too may have some interest in there continuing to be a capable, working-age adult population.

    In the USSR, women were awarded medals for raising large numbers of children. Americans would find that silly, but one of my little pet ideas is to institute “parent benefits” — smallish things like YMCA memberships or free access to interesting online courses — just to make the point that parental service is valued.

  17. Benjamin Glaser

    I am doing what I can do to outbreed the Muslims.

  18. Jim  Ixtian

    Douthat’s article is good but he’s a bit late to the game. Many different elements have combined to create our current situation; the Sexual Revolution, Female controlled birthing eg. the Pill & abortion, No-Fault Divorce, all of which created a new schedule for women at the expense of men. As mentioned, this topic has been dealt with thoroughly by David P. Goldman. For a more succinct analysis the documentary, Demographic Winter is a must watch.

  19. Mendel

    I think most conservatives are missing the boat on falling birth rates.

    There are quotes here about large families traditionally springing from “faith” or “civilizational self-confidence.”  But what about the more likely driver of fertility in days of yore – the almighty dollar?

    Once upon a time children were cheaper to raise and provided more needed wealth later in life.  However, higher infant/child mortality rates meant a family needed lots of children to ensure financial stability.

    Today, children are expensive to raise, and most people provide for their own retirement (along with unnecessary state support).  Decry our loss of spirituality and community if you like, but as long as child-rearing costs more than it pays back, it will sink.

    Obviously factors other than money – love, hormones, faith, community – play a role in the decision to have children.  But even our satined forebears were financial creatures.  We need to accept a certain decline in fertility as a normal consequence of growing wealth.

  20. Mendel
    KingsKnight1: I recall it being suggested that the welfare state in the form of Social Security was a great disinsentive to have children. If the state will take care of you, why go through the expense? · 57 minutes ago

    Agree.  Entitlements set up conditions in which the best interest of the individual is often directly opposed to the interests of society.  Social security and its effect on fertility is but one example.