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Why U.S. Population Growth Crashed to a Record Low

Derek explains how immigration, birth rates, and the pandemic have all affected America’s slow pace of growth

New Yorkers Celebrate Labor Day Weekend Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

America has never grown at a slower pace than right now. Not only have deaths soared in the pandemic, but immigration is falling and our birth rate is near a record low, as well. Why is this happening? And why is population growth so great, anyway? Today’s guest is Matthew Yglesias, the author of the Slow Boring newsletter and the book One Billion Americans. In this episode, we talk about why politicians won’t prioritize family policy and immigration in D.C.; why population growth is good for Americans today and in the future; why a large U.S. population is good for the world; and whether critics have a case when they say a livable planet can’t take another billion people. Part of their conversation has been excerpted below.

Derek Thompson: So let’s start with the news. The Census Bureau’s latest population report found that in 2021, we had the slowest rate of population growth in American history. Deaths increased for sadly obvious reasons, the pandemic; births also declined, and so did immigration. So Matt, I’d love you to walk us through exactly why you think this happened. Let’s start with births. Why do you think birth rates are going down?

Matt Yglesias: Sure. So birth rates have been in a state of decline for quite a long time now. There’s some stuff unique to the pandemic that probably impacted this, but we’re into 20 to 30 years of declining birth rates. And one thing that’s interesting that really changed my thinking is that we haven’t seen a decline in the number of children that people say they would ideally like to have. Now back in the ’70s, that number did go down. But since the early ’80s, ideal fertility as expressed by American women has stayed pretty steady, but realized fertility has gone down further and further. When you ask people in surveys why that is, they cite a lot of financial-type objections.

They say either “I was too old by the time I started having children” or “It took me a long time to achieve financial stability,” or the number one answer is that childcare is too expensive. The relative cost of childcare has gone up a lot while the relative cost of other things has fallen. So I think people perceive it as much more burdensome to have two or three children than they used to in the past.

DT: Yeah. One way that I see it globally is that, as education increases, as women’s education increases, as economies modernize, you tend to see birth rates come down. That is the global trend. And that would explain why countries across the world, in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, are all seeing birth rates sort of trend toward 2.5. But at the same time, as you pointed out, there is a growing gap in the U.S. between the number of children parents say they want to have, which tends to be between two and three, and the number of children they actually have, which is closer to two or even under two. And one reason for that is that it’s just so damn expensive to have kids in the U.S. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) compares the average childcare costs for parents in the richest countries in the world, and for single parents, according to the OECD, the U.S. is the third-most-expensive country in the world to raise a kid in. So it is really hard to have and raise children in America. And as you pointed out, it has gotten harder during the pandemic. Do you have a big-picture theory about why the U.S. seems relatively unique among advanced, rich, developed countries in its lack of financial support for families?

MY: Sure. I mean, the U.S. welfare state is smaller on a whole number of dimensions. I think that’s sort of well known; exactly why that is people can disagree about, but childcare is particularly difficult because it implicates all kinds of culture-war controversies that people have because people really disagree about what is an ideal child-rearing arrangement. And if you were to support expanding the welfare state to take care of little kids, you would have to sort of make some choices, right? Are we trying to get kids into government-run day-care centers to maximize labor-force participation among parents? Do we want to subsidize stay-at-home parents? There was an effort to do that with the expanded child tax credit that the Biden administration did early.

But it turned out conservatives didn’t like that because it cost a lot of money. It gave cash to people who weren’t working, and progressives enjoyed the fact that it was gonna cut poverty but they themselves didn’t want to say, “Well, OK, this is our ideal. We want to just give cash assistance to parents.” They tried to also create a big childcare program, an expansion of pre-K. And so inside even the Democratic Caucus, there was a lack of decision, right? What do we actually want to do here? Because it’s very personal, but also a social choice question. Back in the ’70s, the Nixon administration toyed with creating a national childcare program. Pat Buchanan and other sort of religious-right people convinced him that that would be a mistake, that really their base did not want to see this topic addressed, at least not in that kind of way, and that he would be better off breaking with big business to stand up for sort of traditional family values, and mom stays at home. That worked for Nixon politically, but it hasn’t actually given us a Leave It to Beaver society. So there’s this kind of mismatch between the economic reality of people’s desires and then our own indecision about what we even want to say about this.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Matt Yglesias
Producer: Devon Manze

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