Can We Raise Fertility?

Fertility and pro-natalist policy is being debated on Twitter right now. First, Derek Thompson at The Atlantic describes a “Doom Loop of Liberalism” whereby Low Fertility → High demand for immigrants → Undermined social cohesion; Thompson says the response is to try and push back on that “social cohesion” bit. Ross Douthat piles on and says, yes, this is all true, but the “Low fertility” bit needs pushback too, and the “high demand for immigrants.” In a pretty cool twist, both Thompson and Douthat are citing my work, Douthat a post I did at the Institute for Family Studies explaining that financial incentives to boost fertility are very expensive, and Thompson a post I did on this blog outlining the basic facts of low fertility.

The post neither of them cited was my post on the basic facts of immigration, where I showed that immigration now accounts for nearly 3/4 of population growth in the United States. We are already pretty far around this “doom loop” if indeed it’s a real thing.

Now, sadly, I’m unable at the present time due to lots of other stuff on my plate (I do, after all, have a real job) to write up an exhaustive post on this question of fertility and social change. But less sadly, I’ve written on the topic about seventy gazillion times already. So here are some thoughts/notes/links that I hope people following this debate will find useful:

  1. Not only can religiosity be a driver of fertility, but the changed content or policy of religiosity can sometimes maybe induce fertility changes. But actually, it’s probably not a “maybe.” I’m very, very convinced that social capital can alter fertility as much or more than financial incentives. To be quite clear: if you think low fertility is a problem, start babysitting for friends with kids, have more procreative sex, and start talking positively about childbearing. Family-related norms appear to matter. This is the kind of economist statement where we do exhaustive research to prove what everybody already knew: when you’re surrounded by people who love and support your kids and family, it’s easier to have more kids and a bigger family. File under D for “Duh.” Any person bemoaning low fertility who is not *ahem* working to reverse the problem or actively and personally support people who are is failing to engage in the lowest-cost solution available to society.
  2. Ross mentioned that women tend to have fewer kids than they believe desirable. This is true. I have more on this in the works, but we can generalize and suggest that the number of “missing kids,” i.e. children women (or men) would like to have or find desirable to have is somewhere between 1/3 and about as large as the number of unintended births. That is, in terms of the magnitude of the policy problem, “undesirably low fertility” is of a similar order as “unintentionally high fertility.” And crucially, even women with unintended births still tend to undershoot desired fertility! The causes of this are more than just social attitudes: economic constraints, lack of suitable partners, and other factors are all important. But when we think about solving low fertility, we should be thinking big, not small nudges.
  3. Fertility in the U.S. has been falling for a long time. Like a really long time. From 1800 to the 1930s, fertility was falling, and from the 1950s to the 1970s it fell again. The only periods of rising fertility are the 1930s to 1950s (the Baby Boom) and the 1980s to the mid-2000s (the Great Moderation, if you will). Basically, the only major baby booms on record are in cases where a period of very rapid or very prolonged economic growth followed after a period of striking collapse in fertility. Basically, the “booms” serve as a kind of “regression to the mean” after unsustainable declines driven by the Great Depression or economic modernization. The long run trend in fertility is downwards at least as of the current period.
  4. Declining fertility is partly about abortion, but even with zero abortion availability, birth rates would still have declined steadily since 1990. Abortion’s impact on total fertility rates is a bit more challenging to estimate, but the point is that this is not just about abortion. Nor is it just about contraception: between 1800 and 1937, the US TFR fell from ~7.5 to ~2.3, just a little above replacement, all before widely available modern contraceptives. If we returned to 1937 birth control and abortion laws, there’s no reason to think TFR would spike. Changed access to abortion or contraception may be a very important moral, social, or political question (I’m stridently pro-life), but it is not in fact a really powerful demographic lever. Even in developing countries, the best literature suggests that contraceptive access can account for at best 50% of fertility declines. The main driver of falling fertility in most cases is lower desired fertility as infant mortality and child mortality falls, norms of parenting change, income and life expectancy rise, and industrialization reduces the need for farm labor. Economics, culture, society… contraceptive access is 2nd fiddle to these factors. Important on some margin of course! But we can have the full range demographic debate without needing to include any discussion of contraception or abortion.
  5. But still, in my view, we should ban abortion, because the lives of the unborn are of moral value.
  6. C’mon you knew that was coming.
  7. Social cohesion arising from diversity is a funny thing. The literature on diversity/social cohesion is voluminous, but empirically thin. The most empirical papers show that genetic diversity most likely has positive impacts on children raised in more genetically diverse places. That is, to the extent diversity might worsen some social outcome, it does not do so through any fundamental genetic or physical component, but through culturally constructed channels. Being socially or culturally constructed does not make something easy to change!!! ← (3 exclamation marks because that’s a really important point)
  8. The basic problem of immigrant integration is the nation-state problem; namely, modern states often find it extremely challenging to simultaneously and effectively govern multiple nations, and modern nations often refuse to be governed by states that represent the interests of other nations. To the extent that immigrants introduce competing nationality within a state, it does not matter whether the state treats them as a legitimate 2nd people within the state, or as a dangerous 5th column: any organizational format that allows continued multinationalism within a single state will tend towards instability. To be crystal clear: this means that policies aimed at discriminating against immigrants, making life unpleasant for immigrants, or restricting their ability to live normal lives will tend towards creating the exact same problems as extremely open, cosmopolitan, multiculturalist policies. It is not in fact clear what policies effectively encourage “positive integration.” The range of what we “know” about how to accelerate or slow the pace of immigrant integration is limited.
  9. If you think immigrant communities creating 2nd nations within the state is a problem, you should be worried about online communities as well.
  10. Back on what drives integration: some folks, including Douthat, suggest that reducing immigration might boost integration. This is probably not true; at least, not in the aggregate. Rather, there is some reason to think that we could boost integration by diversifying our immigrant inflows at a fixed aggregate level. Cutting inflows could have zero impact if the biggest-inflow nations are able to boost their post-cut share of inflows enough to compensate! On a different note, there’s some evidence to suggest that assimilation is easier if you take immigrants from super-exotic places and then make them live outside of ethnic communities. Immigrants who are similar to the local culture often manage to avoid feeling pressure to change, and can often find large communities of co-ethnics to help them live their old life, while immigrants from extremely different places are forced to make radical changes, and have a hard time finding supportive communities. The result is a higher degree of psychological stress among these immigrants, but much better economic outcomes and faster cultural convergence. Maybe. As I said, the research is far from conclusive. Other more theoretical work suggests cultural distance slows integration. Point is, there’s a lot we don’t know.
  11. Deportations are a beneficial part of the American immigration system. Historically, nearly 40-50% of immigrants into the US returned to their home country. In the modern period, this has fallen to something like 20–25%. We do more filtering on the front-end than in the past, and less sorting out on the back end. This is bad because it’s actually hard to know who will “make it in America” on an a priori basis, especially if, like me, you have a low assessment of government competence. Much better to let folks in then boot back out the failures. Is it cruel? Depends on your perspective: is it cruel to hire 3 interns and tell them there are 2 jobs available at the end of the summer?
  12. Immigrant integration is more complicated than you might think and conservatives should be careful in thinking about how much we really want immigrants to assimilate: don’t we, after all, want them to maintain their religiosity?

Finally, let me make something super clear. Ross and Derek are two very smart well-meaning guys who are ultimately arguing a kind of stupid thing. Derek essentially is arguing, “Fertility either can’t or oughtn’t be raised, but to maintain living standards and some parts of our culture we need immigrants.” Ross is essentially arguing, “Fertility can and ought to be raised, and therefore we can and ought to reduce immigration.”

These views are both just very plainly wrong. Can we raise fertility? Probably, yes, thought it will of course be difficult. Ought we? If we care about what every survey of womens’ desired fertility has ever said women and men want from their lives, then yes, we ought to. What response does this entail for immigration? It means more immigration, not less. The more native-born Americans we have, the more immigrants we can reasonably expect to absorb! One of the reasons we should want higher birth rates is so that we can take in more immigrants.

I’ve written about this more extensively and more eloquently here. The point is, we need more public figures to adopt a pro-population-growth agenda. More babies, more immigrants, more everything. The impacts of large-scale depopulation could be quite dire. As long as we are quibbling about which side of the population balance sheet to be increasing, we will fail to stave off depopulation, even as we miss population forecasts at an increasingly worrying clip. Rather, we should adopt pro-natalist and pro-integrationist governmental policies and social practices. The only problem is that we don’t exactly know what those policies look like. And that is where we should be investing a lot more energy: what does social capital look like? How do we build it? How do we get immigrants and natives to see each other as one people? How do we get families to have more kids without reducing investments made per kid?

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.