The False Alarm Over U.S. Fertility

April 21, 2013 • Family Planning, United States, Daily Email Recap

The False Alarm Over U.S. Fertility 


AS a bipartisan group of senators prepares to release its plan for comprehensive immigration reform, a curious argument is emerging from across the political spectrum: the United States needs immigration to make up for its declining birthrate.

“Over the next three decades, annual population growth for the working-age population will be less than a third of what it was over the last 60 years,” President Obama’s economic adviserAlan B. Krueger told the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March. “Given current trends, nearly all of the growth of the nation’s working-age population in the next 40 years will be accounted for by immigrants and their children.”

Conservatives, including the anti-tax activist Grover G. Norquist, have embraced the argument. Last week, theAmerican Action Forum, led by the Republican budget expert Douglas Holtz-Eakin, found that immigration legislation could raise the annual rate of economic growthby nearly 1 percentage point, partly because it would help with “low U.S. birthrates.”

In a new book on United States-Mexico relations, Shannon K. O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations writes: “Desperate to close the gaps in America’s work force, in the next decade we may be urging Mexicans to come to the United States. In another new book, “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster,”Jonathan V. Last of The Weekly Standard warns of a “population implosion” that will doom the economy to Japan-style stagnation.

These fears are hogwash.

Unlike many wealthy nations that will see their populations stabilize or decrease in coming decades, the United States, the world’s third most populous country, is expected to grow – to to 420.3 million by 2060 from 315.7 million people today. Our fertility rate (1.9 births per woman, slightly below the “replacement rate” of 2.1) has dipped since the Great Recession but is still among the highest of rich countries’ and ties or exceeds fertility rates in middle-income countries like Brazil, Iran, Thailand and Vietnam.

It was conservatives who largely invented the “aging crisis,” during their 1970s ascendancy. Postwar prosperity had lifted life expectancy, and birthrates had fallen from their record highs during the baby boom, but conservatives exaggerated these trends to call for welfare state retrenchment: reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits. Meanwhile, corporations backed the last successful immigration overhaul, in 1986, for the reasons they do now: their desire for a large supply of low-wage labor.

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