In a little-noticed announcement, the Census Bureau reported that the U.S. population grew by a miniscule 0.1% in the year ending July 1, 2021. That’s the lowest annual increase in our entire history. , and this stagnation has seriously negative implications for the future of the nation.
“High population growth not only provides more workers to support the young and old; more people means more intellectual exchange, idea creation, entrepreneurship, and competition that result from the interaction of people in a free capitalist society,” states an editorial in the Washington Post. “National policy should promote vigorous population expansion.”
Yes it should, and there are basically two ways to do it. One is to make it more attractive for young parents to have babies. The pandemic has worsened the drop in births, but it has been worsening for a generation. Between 2007 and 2020, the national fertility rate – an estimated average of the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime – fell from 2.12 to 1.64. This is the lowest rate on record, and well below 2.1, the rate required to maintain a stable population.
Life expectancy has also fallen, another long-term trend “driven by factors such as drug overdoses, obesity, suicide and liver disease and which accelerated sharply over the past year. the pandemic,” the Post reports.
The second strategy is to boost immigration, which accounted for nearly two-thirds of the meager population increase last year but has been stifled by Donald Trump’s nativist hostility to foreigners. For example, only 11,814 refugees were admitted to the United States in fiscal year 2020, compared to nearly 100,000 arrivals in Barack Obama’s last year in office.
Population growth is a complex problem, subject to many unpredictable influences. Demographers at the Brookings Institution estimate, for example, that COVID-19 caused a shortfall of 60,000 fewer babies than expected — in the six months between October 2020 and February 2021 alone.
“Uncertainty is not good for fertility,” Phillip Levine, co-author of the report, told the Post. “You want to know that when you bring a child into the world, you’re going to bring the child into a safe and secure environment, and if you can’t predict that, that’s when (you might say), “Maybe this is not the right time.”
Public policies can have a limited impact on these deeply personal choices, but a starting point would be programs that make raising children less stressful and more engaging.
America lags far behind most other countries on this front, offering no paid leave for new parents. In contrast, the UK offers 39 weeks; Sweden, 68; the tiny Baltic country of Estonia, 82. Other innovations common elsewhere, from universal kindergarten to child care subsidies, would also help.
In the COVID-19 relief bill passed last year, an existing program of child tax credits was significantly expanded. Depending on the age of their children, parents received a monthly payment of $250 or $300 for each child from July to December, for a total amount of $3,000 or $3,600.
A Columbia University study estimates that the payments helped keep 3.7 million children out of poverty. Another survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that low-income families spent 91% of those extra dollars on basic necessities like food, rent, clothing and school supplies. And yet, the program died out at the end of the year.
On immigration, Biden has used executive orders to reverse some of Trump’s heavy-handed policies. For example, he instituted a measure of legal protection for young “Dreamers”, who were brought into this country illegally as children. Annual refugee quotas have been reduced to Obama-era levels of 125,000, and some backlogs in processing legal applications have been eliminated.
But the hangover of the Trump years still causes serious downturns. Basic structural reforms, such as legalizing the status of 11 million undocumented residents, require congressional approval. And all of Biden’s attempts to pass legislation have been thwarted by blind Republicans who fear newcomers will support Democratic candidates.
Population growth should be a vital national interest. Everyone benefits from more babies, more workers, more taxpayers, more innovators, more job creators.