By John David Dyche
Amid news of wars, shootings, and shutdowns, reports that the 2012 U. S. fertility rate was an all-time low went almost unnoticed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (a curious source for birth rate data) put the rate at 63 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44.
Despite a crop of almost 4 million babies, it was the fifth consecutive year that the rate declined. America has not met the 2.1 children per woman replacement rate since 2007.
The lousy economy is an obvious contributing factor. Cultural changes also play a part.
For example, the birth rate for teens and women in their early twenties fell, but rates for women in their thirties and early forties rose. The non-marital birth rate declined, but what we once called "out of wedlock" births still comprised 40.7 percent of all births and a staggering 72.2 percent of births to "non-Hispanic black" mothers.
Another way of measuring the birth rate is to divide the number of births per year by the total population and express the result as births per 1,000. This is how the Central Intelligence Agency (another curious source for birth rate data) does it.
That U. S. rate is 13.66, but the rates for the top ten countries, all African, exceed 40. Rates for Europe and Japan are even lower than ours. Japan actually lost 17,000 in population last year.
Jonathan Last, a senior writer at the Weekly Standard and author of "What to Expect When No One's Expecting: American's Coming Demographic Disaster" has been sounding the alarm. In a recent Wall Street Journal essay he argued, "The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate."
Last says that "low-fertility societies don't innovate" or "invest aggressively" because capital in aging societies "shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down." There is not enough money to fund retiree entitlements or pay for defense and not enough "military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces."
Only "immigration has kept America from careening over the demographic cliff," Last says. That is not likely to last since Central and South American countries are "on a steep dive toward the replacement line" themselves.
"The only thing that will preserve America's place in the world," according to Last, "is if all Americans – Democrats, Republicans, Hispanics, blacks, whites, Jews, Christians and atheists – decide to have more babies. The problem is that, while making babies is fun, raising them isn't."
Last notes research showing childless adults are happier than parents, but says we "need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness." He offers policy prescriptions, like reducing taxes on parents, reforming higher education to lessen its fertility-dampening effects, and making it easier for families live in lower cost areas.
But some media give more attention to changes in the composition of the American population than to the bigger implications of the falling birthrate. The fact that white deaths exceeded white births in America last year, and that a majority of babies were born to non-whites, got considerable play.
"We're jumping the gun on a long, slow decline of our white population, which is going to characterize this century," William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Post. Frey says the decrease means that aging whites will increasingly have to rely on the younger, mainly minority population to finance social programs that will sustain them.
Others, like Mark Steyn in his book America Alone, argue that declining demographic trends in what used to be called "Christendom" portend victory for a more fertile Islamic culture in a global clash between the two. Steyn blames the welfare state for sapping Western dynamism, but whether he is correct is less important than the trends themselves.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests that, "The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It's a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be."
Perhaps we will do some thinking and talking about our long-term future between our incessant short-term crises. But we obviously need to do more than merely think and talk.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.