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Behind The Birth Dearth

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By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Russian President Vladimir Putin has inadvertently spotlighted one of today's momentous mysteries: collapsing birthrates in industrialized countries. Putin proposed that Russia pay women to have children to remedy a "critical" population outlook. Actually, he might have said "desperate." In 2000 Russia's population totaled almost 147 million; Putin says it's declining by 700,000 a year. With plausible assumptions, the U.S. Census Bureau projects it at 111 million in 2050. The median age (half the population above, half below) would be almost 50, up from 38 now. Could this Russia maintain a strong economy, national optimism or a capable military?

Russia's case, though extreme, isn't isolated. There's no more population "explosion." In wealthier countries, motherhood is going out of style and plunging birthrates portend population loss. This is a hugely significant development, even if we don't fully understand the causes -- 30 years ago experts didn't predict it -- or the consequences. One way or another, the side effects will be massive for economics, politics and people's well-being. Indeed, they may already have started. Is it a coincidence that Germany and Italy, two countries on the edge of population decline, are so troubled?

First, some facts. On average, women must have two children for a society to replace itself. The number of children per woman is called the "total fertility rate," or TFR. Here are the estimated 2005 TFRs for some major countries: Germany, 1.4; Greece, 1.3; Italy, 1.3; Japan, 1.4; Spain, 1.3; and Russia, 1.3. Low fertility rates don't instantly lead to population declines. They can be offset by immigration, longer life expectancies and greater numbers of young mothers. But ultimately low fertility rates suggest falling populations. The table below compares the 2005 populations (in millions) for four countries with the Census Bureau projections for 2050.

2005   2050

Germany       82.4    73.6

Italy              58.1    50.4

Japan          127.4    99.9

Spain            40.3    35.6

"The forthcoming and dramatic depopulation of Europe and Japan will cause many problems," writes Ben Wattenberg in "Fewer," his excellent book on the subject. "Populations will age, the customer base (for businesses) will shrink, there will be labor shortages, the tax base will decline, pensions will be cut, retirement ages will increase." All plausible. In 2000, one in six people in Germany and Japan were 65 or older; by 2050 the projections are for one in three. Of course, projections go wrong. But they could as easily underpredict population loss as overpredict.

Up to a point, we understand plunging fertility rates. Wattenberg reviews the usual suspects: improved incomes; health and life expectancies (as more children survive, parents have fewer babies); growing urbanization (families need fewer children to work the fields); women's access to education and jobs; contraception; later and fewer marriages; more divorces. But our understanding is only partial, because there's one big exception to low fertility rates: the United States.

American fertility is roughly at the replacement rate, 2.1 children per woman. Nor does the U.S. rate merely reflect, as some think, a higher rate among Hispanic Americans. The fertility rate is 1.9 for non-Hispanic whites and about 2 for African Americans, reports demographer Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. What explains the American exception? Eberstadt cites three differences with Europe and most other advanced countries: greater optimism, greater patriotism and stronger religious values. There's some supporting evidence. A survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked respondents in 33 countries to react to this statement: "I would rather be a citizen of [my country] than of any other." Among Americans, 75 percent "strongly" agreed; among Germans, French and Spanish, comparable responses were 21 percent, 34 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

Children are now usually a conscious choice -- whereas they were once considered economic necessities or religious obligations. Somehow American society better mixes child rearing and jobs than do other societies that provide greater child subsidies (government day care, family allowances). Indeed, generous welfare states may discourage having children. A study by economists at the University of Minnesota found that high Social Security payments and payroll taxes are associated with low fertility rates. People may feel they don't need children to care for them in old age. Or high taxes and poor economies may deter young people from starting families.

No one knows. Among experts, there is much skepticism that Putin-like economic incentives alone will revive fertility rates. By not having children, people are voting against the future -- their countries' and perhaps their own. It is easy to imagine the sacrifices and disappointments of raising children. It is hard, try as people might, to imagine the intense joys and selfish pleasures. People ignore Adam Smith's keen insight: "The chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved."


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