The stork was busy in America last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 3,985,924 births in 2014, a 1 percent increase from 2013 and the first rise since 2007. At an average of 1.9 births per woman, the country’s fertility rate remains too low to keep the population stable. This isn’t just a problem in the U.S.; around the developed world, families aren’t having as many kids, and that’s a potential threat. The prospects of a rapidly aging and shrinking population are ominous for pension and health-care costs.
If other demographic forces don’t come into play, women need to give birth to 2.1 children on average to keep population constant. This number is called the replacement fertility rate. If women average one girl, one boy, and an occasional extra baby, that accounts for the risk that kids will die before they’ve had kids themselves. Across the wealthiest members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the fertility rate has dropped from 2.98 children per woman in 1960 to 1.78 in 1990 and 1.66 today, well below the replacement level. If nothing changes, there will be a considerable shift toward smaller, much older populations throughout the industrialized world. Retirees don’t work, but they do consume—drawing pensions and requiring health care. That creates a real challenge for how to support them.
The good news is that there’s a solution to the population problem; it’s one of those other demographic forces I hinted at above. There are lots of people around the world who want to come to the countries that have the lowest birthrates. Many are already potty trained and literate, and some even have advanced degrees. Letting more of them in is one of the few effective tools we have to raise the birthrate.
For reasons including misplaced fear about a lack of jobs, concern about social cohesion, and rank xenophobia, most countries choose not to encourage immigration. Donald Trump expressed that xenophobia in June when he announced he was running for president, saying Mexican immigrants to the U.S. were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (He did add that he assumes “some … are good people.”) Less obnoxiously, Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary, who heads immigration policy in the U.K., suggested to an audience at a British think tank in 2012 that she’s keen to restrict foreigners, because “how can people build relationships with their neighbors if they can’t even speak the same language?” Immigrants, May added, deny natives housing, hospital beds, and places in school.
Instead of liberalizing immigration, governments have tried a range of approaches to encourage more people to become parents. In 2007, Russia designated Sept. 12 Family Contact Day, followed up nine months later by Give Birth to a Patriot on Russia Day. Mothers who timed things right and gave birth on schedule won prizes such as an SUV, presumably with a preinstalled rear-facing baby seat. Singapore introduced National Night in 2012, rolling out a pro-procreation jingle: “I’m a patriotic husband; you’re my patriotic wife. Let’s do our civic duty and manufacture life.”
Singapore has tried cash rewards as well. Beginning in 1987, the country introduced a series of “baby bonuses”—a little more than $1,500 for a second kid; twice that for a third—along with generous tax credits. The policies did lead to a brief spike in baby making, but not enough to reverse the long-term trend. Other countries have also found payouts for procreation don’t have much effect in the long run.
Given the scale of the decision potential parents are being asked to make, a small bribe apparently doesn’t change much. Even if the sticker price were the only cost to be factored in—with years of interrupted sleep, diaper changing, and conflict over untidy bedrooms counting for nothing—it isn’t clear many governments could afford the payments that would be required to alter the financial calculus of having a child.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it costs $245,340 to raise a kid to the age of 18. That excludes lost parental income and costs for college. (The average bill for four years at a university is $96,000.) To make a dent in those numbers would cost a government a lot more than any appears ready to spend. Imagine if the U.S. kicked in 10 percent of the cost of raising a child for the 3.9 million births that occur every year in America: That would be $97 billion annually, or one-fifth of the federal nondefense discretionary budget.
Rich countries have introduced some policies that do work to raise birthrates, based on the idea that we shouldn’t force women to choose between kids and a career. Compared with goofy prizes, better access to child care really can be an important tool for sustaining birthrates. Analysis of government-supported child care in Norway, Italy, and Spain suggests it had a sizable impact on fertility choices. The European Union has set targets for one-third of kids age 3 or younger and 90 percent or more of kids between 3 and school age to have places in day care. Those European countries that were already approaching or surpassing the targets in 2008 have fertility rates of about 1.77 today, slightly higher than the OECD average.
For all of its potential benefits for both parents and their offspring, child care is no panacea for a declining population. Sometimes, increased access doesn’t appear to have an impact on fertility at all. In a study of German child care published this year, Alexander Bick of Arizona State University found that better access increased the number of mothers in the workforce and the number working longer hours but had little effect on the number of children born. In France, one of the leading European countries in terms of providing child care, the fertility rate of native-born French women remained only 1.8 in 2005. Spain, another child-care leader, has an overall fertility rate of 1.32 children per woman.
Contrary to the protests of nativists and pandering politicians, immigration can stabilize a population. Although immigrants rapidly adopt the fertility patterns of their new countries, they still tend to produce more children to begin with. Migrant women in France had an average of 3.3 children each in 2005, bumping the country’s overall fertility rate up from 1.8 kids per woman to 1.9. According to Pew Research Center data, the foreign-born in the U.S. account for 13 percent of the total population but 23 percent of the births. Through 2050, immigrants arriving since 2005 and their descendants will account for four-fifths of U.S. population growth.
Immigration can also help reduce the ratio of retirees to workers. Migrants tend to arrive as young workers rather than babies or pensioners. In the U.S., less than 7 percent of the foreign-born population is younger than 18, compared with more than 25 percent of the native-born. That means a recipient country gets the instant benefit of a larger working-age population without the expense and delay of rearing workers as children.
Some newly arrived workers help provide cheap child-care options for everyone else. Delia Furtado of the University of Connecticut, who looked at U.S. Census data from 1980 to 2000, attributes increased fertility among skilled American women in that period to the growing population of unskilled immigrants willing to provide child care at a low cost.
Trump’s alarm about crime and May’s concerns about access to services are overblown. If anything, there’s less crime in areas with more immigrants in the U.S., according to a 2012 analysis by Marjorie Zatz and Hilary Smith in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. And research in the U.K. suggests that a larger local immigrant population is associated with reduced waiting time for health services. That may be because so many immigrants become a vital part of the health-care workforce.
More immigration is both the cheapest and most effective response to the challenge of a shrinking, aging population. It’s the only plausible solution that appears powerful enough to counteract declining birthrates among native populations in industrialized nations. If countries want to avoid shriveling, they’d better put out the welcome mat.