Pro-natalist policies are great, but declining birth rates are here to stay

If there is one thing that sends fear and trembling through a country’s political elite these days, it’s news that population growth is slowing down — or worse, that the population has begun to decline.

As birthrates fall, people fear that a population bust is imminent. Even before China’s population had actually begun to decline, the official People’s Daily ran a special section on the population crisis, including an op-ed entitled “Having children is a family matter but is also a national matter.” When census data showed slowing growth in the U.S., Ryan Cooper wrote in The Week that “America is looking down the barrel of population collapse,” while Business Insider warned readers of “The Great People Shortage.” 

Along with the hand-wringing come solutions. In a world of two-earner families, we could provide free or affordable childcare, and more (paid) parental leave. We could provide family allowances or child tax credits. We could mount campaigns, like Singapore did, with rap videos and posters reading “Let’s Make Babies: It’s National Night!” Except for the rap videos, these are good social policy and should be pursued for that reason. But if the goal is to reverse declining birth rates, these policies won’t work.

Demographers use a measure known as the Total Fertility Rate (TFR),  the average number of births per woman during her lifetime. At the risk of oversimplifying, the number that results in a stable population without migration, known as the “replacement rate,” is 2.1. If the rate goes below that, a nation’s population will eventually decline. According to the World Bank, there were 84 countries or territories with a TFR below 2.1 in 2011. These were mostly, but not all, developed nations. I decided to see how many of those countries had a TFR above 2.1 ten years later, in 2021. Short answer: none.

Not that countries haven’t tried. France has been following what are known as “pro-natal” policies since the 1930s. Sweden may be the most pro-natalist country in the world. In both countries, birth rates are well below replacement — though they may be somewhat higher than they might have been without all the supports those countries offer. There’s some evidence that when pro-natal policies are first introduced, they can lead to a temporary upswing in births. But then the numbers go back down again.

The bottom line is pretty clear. When a society provides reasonable access to contraception, reaches a certain level of prosperity and urbanization, and — perhaps most importantly — offers women access to the full range of educational and job opportunities, birth rates go down. And once they start going down, they keep going down until they’re well below the level needed to maintain a stable population. The slowdown in births that we’re seeing is not a function of our inadequate social policies, or of our failure to provide for family needs, important as both are. It is a function of what it means — in terms of the large economic, social and demographic forces that are at work — to be a developed, urbanized nation in the 21st century. 

Birth rates in the United States are well below replacement levels (in 2021 our TFR was 1.66), have been going down steadily for the past 15 years, and will probably decline further. And while we should enact affordable childcare and parental-leave policies because they’re good for society, we should be under no illusions that they will change that trajectory. In less than a decade, deaths are likely to exceed births in the U.S. By that point, the number of people entering the workforce will be much smaller than it is today, and much smaller than the number aging out. At that point, just to keep a stable workforce — let alone grow it — we will need large numbers of immigrants.

That is the can we keep kicking down the road. We are long overdue to start thinking about a sensible yet compassionate immigration policy that can help safeguard our nation’s future wellbeing. There are large parts of the world where millions live in fear, and far more that are unable to provide outlets for the talent and energy in their still-growing populations.

The United States is far from full. If we want to maintain a dynamic economy, and make sure that we have enough workers to meet the needs of that economy and our aging population, we need to increase the number of immigrants making America their home, and do so in a stable, sustainable, long-term fashion. That is a tall order in a country where immigration has become a political third rail, but if we aren’t willing to take it on, we should start thinking about our future as a shrinking country.

Alan Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, DC. He is the author of “Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World: Learning to Thrive Without Growth.”

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