Steven V. Roberts: More Americans wanted
Published 11:58 pm Thursday, February 17, 2022
Wanted: More Americans!
In a little-noticed announcement released during the holiday season, the Census Bureau reported that the U.S. population had grown by a minuscule 0.1% during the year ending July 1, 2021. That’s the lowest annual increase in our entire history, and this stagnation has seriously negative implications for the nation’s future.
“Robust population growth not only provides more workers to sustain the young and the old; more people means more of the intellectual exchange, idea creation, entrepreneurship and competition that result from people interacting in a free, capitalist society,” asserts a Washington Post editorial. “National policy should promote vigorous population expansion.”
Yes, it should, and there are essentially two ways to do that. One is to make it more attractive for young parents to have babies. The pandemic aggravated the birth bust, but it had been getting worse for a generation. Between 2007 and 2020, the national fertility rate — an estimated average of the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime — declined from 2.12 to 1.64. That’s the lowest rate ever, and well below 2.1, the rate required to maintain a stable population.
Life expectancy has also dipped, another long-term trend “driven by factors such as drug overdoses, obesity, suicide and liver disease and that sharply accelerated last year during the pandemic,” reports the Post.
The second strategy is to boost immigration, which accounted for almost two-thirds of the meager population increase last year, but which has been suffocated by Donald Trump’s nativist hostility to foreigners. For example, only 11,814 refugees were admitted to the U.S. during fiscal year 2020, compared to almost 100,000 arrivals during Barack Obama’s last year in office.
Population growth is a complex problem, subject to many unpredictable influences. Demographers at the Brookings Institution estimate, for instance, that COVID-19 caused a deficit of 60,000 fewer babies than expected — just during the six months between October 2020 and February 2021.
“Uncertainty is not good for fertility,” Phillip Levine, co-author of the report, told the Post. “You want to know that when you’re bringing a child into the world, you’re going to be bringing the child into an environment that’s safe and secure, and if you can’t forecast that, that’s when (you might say), ‘Maybe now is not the right time.’”
Public policy can have limited impact on such profoundly personal choices, but a starting point would be programs that make child-rearing less stressful and more attractive.
America lags far behind most other countries on this front, providing no paid leave for new parents. In contrast, the United Kingdom offers 39 weeks; Sweden, 68; the tiny Baltic country of Estonia, 82. Other innovations that are common elsewhere, from universal pre-K to child care subsidies, would also help.
In the COVID-19 relief bill passed last year, an existing program of child tax credits was significantly expanded. Depending on the age of their children, parents received a monthly payment of $250 or $300 for each child from July through December, for a total amount of either $3,000 or $3,600.
A study by Columbia University estimates that the payments helped keep 3.7 million children out of poverty. Another survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that low-income families spent 91% of those extra dollars on basic necessities like food, rent, clothing and school supplies. And yet the program lapsed at the end of the year, and was not renewed when President Biden’s Build Back Better bill was shelved by Congress.
“Few federal programs have had such a demonstrable impact in such a short time,” stated Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, who leads a group of moderate House Democrats. “All this underscores why we need to renew this benefit.”
On immigration, Biden has used executive orders to reverse some of Trump’s brutal policies. For example, he instituted a measure of legal protection for young “Dreamers,” who were brought to this country illegally as children. Annual refugee quotas have been moved back to the Obama-era level of 125,000, and some backlogs for processing legal applications have been cleared.
But the hangover from the Trump years is still causing serious slowdowns. Basic structural reforms, such as legalizing the status of 11 million undocumented residents, require congressional approval. And all of Biden’s attempts to pass legislation have been thwarted by benighted Republicans who fear newcomers will back Democratic candidates.
Increasing the population should be a vital national interest — supported by both parties. Everyone benefits from more babies, more workers, more taxpayers, more innovators, more job-creators.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book is “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.” He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.