In January 2013, Jane Eisner, editor of the English-language Jewish Daily Forward, wrote that what “keeps [her] up at night” and “haunts” her is worrying that young liberal Jews are not marrying within the faith or even choosing to marry at all:
The non-Orthodox birthrate in America is far below replacement level . . . In this and so much else, most younger Jews in America simply reflect trends in the larger society, where highly educated people are marrying later, giving birth later, and living in a far more pluralistic environment than even a generation ago.
Jonathan Last, who catalogues the current fertility crisis in his wittily titled book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, puts parochial worries (will there be as many people like me in the next generation?) in a larger context. A senior writer at The Weekly Standard, Last explains that the current below replacement-level birth rate is a national, even global, affliction for which there are multiple explanations—including religious affiliation and practice—and which we ignore at our peril.
One reason for the current birth-rate crisis is that the number of children one views as “ideal” depends very much on one’s level of religious observance. As Last notes, recent “surveys show that just 21 percent of non-religious Americans view three or more children as being ideal family size . . . Among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say that three or more children is ideal.” This means that as “Americans have become more secular, they’ve cut back on having children.”
Of course, there are other reasons. Middle class American women are reproducing at below replacement level because more women are going to college than ever before, because more women (and men) are delaying marriage, because of the Pill, which gives us greater choice about when to have a child, because of housing, because you don’t need your kids to take care of you in your old age when there is Social Security, not to mention car seat laws, the high cost of strollers, daycare (the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reports that full-time care for an infant cost, on average, between $9,630 and $14,591 per year in 2008, depending on where the care was provided), college, and all of the other expenses that go along with having kids.
The combination of all of these factors means that today, when you look at what people say is their ideal number of children, the answer has changed dramatically compared with a couple of decades ago. In the 1980s and 1990s the percentage of people who said either no children or one child was their ideal family size more than doubled, while the percentage that idealized four (or more) kids dropped by more than half. And overall, the fertility rate in America, is for the first time, tilting below replacement level.
Last analyzes surveys from other countries, like Austria and Germany, and worries that just as in those countries, a sub-replacement U.S. birth rate may come to be seen as the “ideal” family size because of what people see around them. “When people grow up in a world without babies, they might stop wanting babies for themselves. Even in the abstract,” Last writes.
Everyone knows that college costs so much these days that parents might limit the number of kids they have in an effort to “afford it.” But what is it about car seats? Is Last really arguing that making kids safer in cars has depressed fertility? As the author correctly notes, car seat laws “didn’t make life any easier for parents with lots of kids.” In 1976 when car seat laws began to be enacted “16 percent of American women had four children and 20 percent had five or more,” Last writes. The percentage who had five or more kids by 2010 was 1.8 percent. So kids are somewhat safer (Last reports that an average of 263 children’s’ lives are saved by car seats each year), but there are fewer of them. And the fact that having more than two kids obligates parents to purchase a bigger car because they need more room for car seats shouldn’t be underestimated as an economic deterrent, either.
In Last’s estimation, housing has had both negative and positive effects on fertility, depending on particular trends. Apartments push people to have fewer kids, as happened in Europe after World War I. After World War II in America, there was an acute housing shortage until the advent of the mass-produced, single-family homes such as those in the famous Levittown. By 1948, the number of newly built homes was 1,183,000, and of those units the vast majority were single-family homes. Lo and behold, the years 1946 to 1964 coincide with the Baby Boom. As Last explains, “Levittown became home to so many children that locals jokingly referred to it as ‘Fertility Valley’ and ‘The Rabbit Hutch.’ Such was the awesome power of the single-family home.” Powerful yes, but not completely dominating. In the 1960s tenements made a comeback and condominiums became more common. The result? “The percentage of tenements as part of the total housing stock increased by 40 percent from 1960 to 1970 and by another 23 percent from 1970 and 1980. Surprise! It’s the precise timeframe during which America’s fertility numbers went into steep decline,” Last explains.
Last doesn’t focus solely on the United States, however. He chronicles the trouble caused when countries that had enacted lower fertility public policies then try to change course to get people back to having more babies. “In 2000,” Last chronicles, “[Singapore] announced . . . the ‘Baby Bonus’ program, which paid families—straight cash—for having children: $9,000 for the second child and $18,000 for the third.” The result of these and other family formation efforts has been unmitigated failure. “In 2001, Singapore’s fertility rate was 1.41. By 2004 it was 1.24. Today it is 1.11,” Last observes.
The United States, thankfully, isn’t in the same boat with Japan and Singapore. We got Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 blockbuster The Population Bomb, instead. Ehrlich claimed in that book that come the 1970s there wouldn’t be enough food to feed all the people on the planet. “[H]undreds of millions of people are going to starve to death,” Ehrlich declared. As Last calmly notes however, the exact opposite happened and was happening even as Johnny Carson was devoting a whole program to Ehrlich’s message of doom.
“[W]hat’s so wonderful about Ehrlich’s silly book,” Last wryly notes, “is that he was wrong at the exact moment when the very opposite of his prediction was unfolding” with American and worldwide fertility rates sinking “like a stone.”
Wrong as Ehrlich was, though, his message is the one you find still widely claimed and circulated. Even more than forty years later and much available evidence to the contrary, Ehrlich’s view is held by precisely the college-educated elites least likely to have lots of children and most likely to influence others not to do so. Even the very mildest suggestion that more children would be good for America leads to angry comments about the “dangers” of too many people. The result, as Last argues, is that we are facing a baby bust that no one seems to want to confront. And the results, Last is afraid, will be dire:
[S]ub-replacement fertility rates eventually lead to a shrinking of population—and throughout recorded human history, declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things. Disease. War. Economic stagnation or collapse.
Last may well be right that economic stagnation, if not a zombie apocalypse, is headed our way, but his policy suggestions are, he admits, rather modest and tentative. He reiterates that fertility is a problem that cannot be deferred forever. Once the birth rate drops below a certain point there may be little to nothing we can do to reverse course. Looking at the modest successes with natalist policies in France and Scandinavia, Last argues that “efforts to stoke fertility must be sustained over several generational cohorts.” But given our current national habit of enacting short-term solutions for long-range and deeply complex problems, the idea of redirecting the birth rate upwards in this way seems almost a fool’s errand. Last also claims that bribery won’t work, so paying parents to have more kids is a non-starter. So what can be done?
Last cites Phillip Longman’s proposal to reform Social Security to encourage parents to have more kids by lowering a couple’s FICA taxes by a third “with the birth of their first child, by two-thirds with the birth of a second, and then eliminated completely with the third (until the kids turn 18).” Last also critiques college as an unnecessary “credentialing badge,” which places a heavy financial burden on middle class families. Telecommuting is another of Last’s recommendations because then people could live in less expensive areas (and therefore afford to have more kids) rather than in high-cost cities. He also argues for more immigration because immigrants tend to have higher fertility rates than native-born Americans (although he notes that within a generation immigrants tend to conform to American norms).
What of Jane Eisner’s Jewish worry? She is entirely correct that non-Orthodox Jews live like other secular, modern Americans, so it is no surprise that they aren’t reproducing at replacement level—which is to say that the cultural world Eisner cherishes is not being replenished. She ended her editorial with the stark admission that, within this world, there is no “vocabulary” to even discuss this problem. Meanwhile, in the pages of Ha’aretz, a 91-year-old Paul Ehrlich recently advised Eisner’s Israeli counterparts that “true Zionists should have small families.”
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