The first results of the 2020 census have been released. One headline trumpets that America’s population has grown at its slowest pace since the Great Depression. Many experts see this as a bad thing because population growth is believed to be tied to economic growth. However, the economy was doing well in the 2010s, until 2020 (Covid). The Dow Jones was at 10,583.96 at the start of the decade and finished at 28,534.44.
The population growth rate between 1930 and 1940 and between 2010 and 2020 is about the same, 7.3%. In real terms, the United States grew by just under 9 million people in the 1930s; in the 2010s, the population grew by 22.7 million people, a total of 255% more than in the 1930s. So, yes, the rates are similar but the actual new population is much larger. I took these numbers from a New York Times article titled “Population Bust.” If these new people were their own country, they would be the 58th most populous country in the world. Some bust.
Another headline trumpets that the United States is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse and (quieter) that for the first time in US history the number of non-Hispanic whites has declined. They have decreased by 5 million. So let’s link the “fall” in population (an increase of 22 million people) to the decline of people who identify as “white”.
Why has the population growth rate decreased? The most important reason is the birth rate. The Aboriginal birth rate is declining, it has fallen by 50% since the end of the baby boom (early 1960s) and by 17% since 1990. Why? Women have more options today than in the 90s, and around the world we are seeing educated and employed women having fewer children. Our society is not very mom-friendly, which means that people respond to the economy (not always the way economists think they “should”, but they do) and although many moms do. indicate that they would like to have more children, they also calculate that they cannot afford it. A second factor is the decline in legal immigration. This is a double whammy, as legal immigrants often have children while illegal immigrants often do not.
Why has the absolute number of whites decreased? Low birth rate and low immigration from Europe. The massive European immigration of the past, of people looking for a better life, is no longer a push factor. Indeed, Europeans today regard the United States as a somewhat backward country. As American women on the whole have become more educated and are more likely to be in the workforce, white women have benefited the most from these trends; the more educated and financially secure these women are, the fewer children they have. It’s not just an American phenomenon, it’s global.
How will the Conservatives and Liberals view these trends? Conservatives won’t like population growth to be on the decline (because they think it hurts economic growth) and whites have failed to even replace themselves. This will give more voice to far-right racists who promote the “replacement theory”. The Liberals will like reduced population growth because it suggests less pressure on the environment. Liberals will point to society’s lack of support for motherhood as a reason why the birth rate is dropping, probably without saying too much that the best-educated and paid (white) women are the ones who choose not to. have (as many) children.
Conservatives favor lower levels of immigration, but not because it increases working class wages (as labor supply tightens). The Liberals will like the latter, but not necessarily the former. The tightening of the labor market is also likely to reduce income inequality, a liberal objective.
Polls suggest Americans want more kids, but kids are expensive, especially child care. Letting the market work its magic doesn’t work. Will tax credits do it? I don’t think so because they don’t lower the price of child care. Tax credits could actually have the opposite effect.
Another obstacle to increasing the number of children is the lack of paid parental leave. We are the only major industrial country that does not have such a policy. However, these countries experience low (even lower) birth rates than the United States. Thus, imposing paid holidays is not necessarily the solution. Unlike Europe, we can absorb a lot more immigrants, but that’s toxic for discussion, unless it’s just the immigration of people like the shrinking majority of whites.
Twitter and the politics of sound clips make the kind of discussion we need almost impossible. There is a serious dearth of real, respectful and productive dialogue.
Thomas L. Steiger is professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email: [email protected]