Jonathan V. Last's essay on "America's Baby Bust" in Saturday's Wall Street Journal might have the exact opposite effect he'd hoped. Depression tends to dampen libido, and this was one epic piece of demographic doom-mongering. I suppose Last's suggested solution -- tax breaks! -- might perk up some otherwise reproductively recalcitrant readers. But do we really want to add yet another twist to our already-Byzantine tax code?
Last's panic attack aside, Americans are still having babies. Americans will keep having babies -- lots of babies. The world will keep turning, and America will move forward, even if we get a bit grayer around the edges.
Yes, our birthrate has recently dipped oh-so-slightly below replacement. But the high birth rates during the baby boom were the real modern aberration. In the mid-1970s, America's total fertility rate was at its lowest, at 1.74 births per woman. It inched back up in the following three decades and has only recently declined again, to about 1.9 in 2011. When the economy slumps, so do births. So, it may well pick back up when the economy strengthens. If anything, Americans should be lauded -- not shamed -- for responsibly taking their economic situations into account before having kids.
Looking at the big picture, we are most assuredly still growing -- and rapidly at that. Current U.S. population is around 315 million. We're expected to cross the 400 million mark sometime around 2051 -- a mere 37 years from now. That means finding adequate water, space, energy and good jobs for an additional 87 million or so resource-hungry Americans. This certainly doesn't sound like the empty, tumbleweed-scarred wasteland Last describes.
Yes, America is graying, and we will need to make adjustments in the coming decades. But this "problem" comes with a built-in solution. We baby boomers aren't the "greatest generation" -- but we're the largest. As much as we might try to fight it, delay it or deny it, we baby boomers will die. We're working our way through America's demographic history like a rat through a boa constrictor. And just like that furry dinner, we, too, shall pass.
It's ironic that Last decries the notion of "happiness" as a measure of a life well lived. Last writes that we "need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness." Yet our Founding Fathers certainly thought of happiness as more than "mere" -- enshrining it alongside life and liberty as reasons for our nation's very existence. Most parents find great joy in having children. Happiness need not be a trivial pursuit, regardless of whether one chooses to be a parent.
Meanwhile, in booming Germany, women have an average of 1.41 children, well below the U.S. rate. And what countries have the highest fertility rates? Places like Niger, Mali, Chad and Afghanistan. Low fertility rates are most often found in healthy economies, while the highest rates are often in the most challenging places to live, work and grow.
For Last and others, the answer always comes back to special tax breaks. But here's the deal: They may sometimes spur job creation, but they don't seem to boost procreation. Nations like Singapore have tried giving huge "baby bonuses," to no avail. And we don't offer nearly the support system parents over there enjoy. Why would a $5,000 check signed by Uncle Sam persuade a reluctant American woman to have a baby when she'll have to absorb way more than that in unpaid maternity leave and reduced lifetime earnings?
Currently, 16 million American children live below the poverty line. 17 million American children suffer from food insecurity. 30 percent of American children are attending overcrowded schools that aren't conducive to learning. Instead of shaming or enticing Americans to have more children, let's invest in the ones we already have and thus embrace a stronger American future.
That, I assure you, will boost our GDP more than would a sudden run on Pampers.
John Seager is President of Population Connection, the nation's largest grassroots population organization. The organization's website is populationconnection.org.