Why America’s Population Growth Has Collapsed to an All-Time High


America has never grown at a slower rate only at this moment. Not only have deaths skyrocketed in the pandemic, but immigration is declining and our birth rate is also near an all-time high. Why does this happen? And why is population growth so important, anyway? Today’s guest is Matthew Yglesias, the author of boring slow newsletter and book One Billion Americans. In this episode, we explain why politicians won’t prioritize family policy and immigration in DC; why population growth is good for Americans today and in the future; why a large American population is good for the world; and whether the critics are right that a habitable planet can’t accommodate another billion people. Part of their conversation is excerpted below.


Derek Thompson: So let’s start with the news. The latest Census Bureau population report found that in 2021 we have the slowest population growth rate in American history. Deaths have increased for sadly obvious reasons, the pandemic; births have also declined, as has immigration. So Matt, I’d like you to tell us exactly why you think this happened. Let’s start with the births. Why do you think birth rates are falling?

Matt Yglesias: Sure. So birth rates have been falling for quite a long time now. There are things unique to the pandemic that probably impacted that, but we’re 20 to 30 years away from declining birth rates. And one interesting thing that really changed my thinking is that we haven’t seen a drop in the number of children that people say they would ideally like to have. Now, in the 70s, that number has gone down. But since the early 1980s, ideal fertility as expressed by American women has remained fairly stable, but realized fertility has fallen more and more. When you ask people in surveys why this is the case, they cite a lot of financial type objections.

They say either “I was too old when I started having children” or “It took me a long time to achieve financial stability”, or the number one answer is that childcare costs too much. The relative cost of child care has increased significantly while the relative cost of other things has decreased. So I think people perceive that having two or three children is much more painful than before.

DT: Yeah. One way I see it on a global scale is that as education goes up, as women’s education goes up, as economies modernize, birth rates tend to go down . This is the global trend. And that would explain why countries around the world, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia, are all seeing birth rates trending towards 2.5. But at the same time, as you pointed out, there is a growing gap in the United States between the number of children that parents say they want to have, which tends to be between two and three, and the number of children they actually have, which is closer to two or even less than two. And one of the reasons for that is that it is so expensive to have children in the United States. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) compares the average child care costs for parents in the world’s wealthiest countries and for single parents, according to the OECD, the United States is the third country in the world where raising a child is the most expensive. It is therefore very difficult to have and raise children in the United States. And as you pointed out, it has become more difficult during the pandemic. Do you have an overarching theory as to why the United States seems relatively unique among advanced, wealthy, developed countries in its lack of financial support for families?

MY: Sure. I mean, the American welfare state is smaller in many ways. I think it’s sort of well known; exactly why people might disagree but child custody is especially difficult because it involves all sorts of culture war controversies that people have because people really disagree on what an ideal arrangement is to raise children. And if you were to support the expansion of the welfare state to take care of small children, you would kind of have to make choices, right? Are we trying to get children into government-run child care to maximize parental labor market participation? Do we want to subsidize stay-at-home parents? There was an effort to do that with the expanded child tax credit that the Biden administration made early on.

But it turned out that the curators didn’t like it because it was very expensive. He gave money to people who weren’t working, and the progressives liked that it would reduce poverty, but they themselves didn’t want to say, “Well, okay, that’s our ideal. We just want to give cash assistance to parents. They also tried to create a large child care program, an expansion of pre-K. And so inside the Democratic Caucus itself, there was a lack of decision, right? What do we really want to do here? Because it’s very personal, but also a matter of social choice. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration considered creating a national child care program. Pat Buchanan and other types of people on the religious right convinced him that it would be a mistake, that their base really didn’t want to see this topic discussed, at least not in this way, and that he had better break with big company to uphold some sort of traditional family values, and mom stays home. It worked for Nixon politically, but it didn’t really give us a leave it to the beaver society. So there’s this kind of disconnect between the economic reality of people’s desires and then our own indecision about what we even want to say about it.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Matt Yglesias
Producer: Devon Manze

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