Writing about fertility is really hard

It's an important economic issue, but the rhetorical waters are fraught with danger

The birth rate is a very difficult thing to write about. Having kids is a deeply personal decision that no government should interfere with. But at the same time, population growth in the aggregate is very important for a nation economically. Thus, if you want to write about fertility rates from an economic standpoint, you need to do it in a way that makes it clear that you’re not advocating any impingement on people’s freedom of choice.

Unfortunately, some people don’t take this approach, and instead use fertility rates as a hobbyhorse for their (usually rightist) cultural politics. These include:

  1. Nationalists who demand that women have more babies for the good of the country,

  2. Traditionalists upset about changing gender roles,

  3. Eugenicists, who hate the idea of growing minority populations, and

  4. Ethnonationalists, who (in America) want White women to have more kids and Black, Hispanic, and Asian women to have fewer, in order to maintain White demographic dominance.

When I write about fertility, my biggest worry is generally coming off as the first of these. People who know my writing know that I’m neither a traditionalist, a eugenicist, or an ethnonationalist. But when I write that higher fertility would be good for the future of the American economy, as I did for Bloomberg last week, I worry that people will think that I’m ordering women into the maternity ward. I obviously don’t want to come off like Yanagisawa Hakuo, the Japanese health minister who called women “birth-giving machines” back in 2007.

In fact, falling fertility rates are often (though not always) a byproduct of trends that are generally positive. When countries get rich, they have fewer kids. The same is true for people in general. Rising education, falling child mortality, and increased access to contraception are all very good things. And they also tend to decrease birth rates. Falling fertility rates are an economic issue that countries have to deal with as their education, income and health levels improve. We should celebrate the positive trends in education, income and health, while thinking about how to deal with the challenges of an aging population.

In the 1990s and 2000s, America briefly had a period where our fertility rate was well above average for a rich country. People were really excited about that — it seemed to portend a future where America would grow and grow while our rivals shrank and shrank. Our pension funds would be overflowing, there would be enough taxes to pay to upkeep infrastructure, housing prices would keep rising steadily…good times. I shared in this optimism.

But in the 2010s, American fertility fell, to about the average value for a rich country.

And looking back on the mini-baby-boom of the late 80s through the late 00s, I now see some obvious reasons why it was always destined to end. In my Bloomberg column, I tried to briefly explain some of those reasons.

One of the reasons (not the only reason) that America had unusually strong fertility from the late 80s through the late 00s was that Hispanic birth rates were somewhat high. Not super high, but higher than White, Black, or Asian fertility rates, which were all at or below the “replacement level” of around 2.1:

Economically, that was a good thing for our country! But it couldn’t last, and we shouldn’t have expected it to last. Because at the same time, Hispanic Americans were climbing the ladder of income and education.

Rising income and education are both very good trends, and we should celebrate them!! Yes, they did lead to lower fertility rates. But that is a personal choice on the part of Hispanic Americans that we as policy thinkers have to respect, even as we think about how to deal with the economic challenge created by the lower fertility rates. We should use government policy to support families who want to have more kids but who can’t afford it, via child allowances, subsidized child care, and so on. But we shouldn’t tell anyone they need to have more kids.

That’s a nuanced position to take, but I believe it’s the right one. Unfortunately, in my Bloomberg post, I didn’t do a good job of communicating that nuance in a way that everyone would understand. I wrote:

Another positive cause of fertility decline has been the assimilation of Hispanic Americans to U.S. fertility norms. In 2007, Hispanic American women had about 67% more children than their White counterparts; by 2018, the difference had shrunk to less than 20% . This is a sign of successful cultural integration of the descendants of immigrants, as well as upward economic mobility among Hispanics.

Some people interpreted this paragraph as a declaration that falling Hispanic fertility is a good thing — in other words, they thought I was a eugenicist or ethnonationalist!

I can see how people would have read it this way. In recent years, ethnonationalists held power in the U.S. for four years, and used their power to persecute immigrants and brutalize would-be immigrants. Moreover, the idea of a so-called “Great Replacement” has become core to the ideology of the political Right. If you don’t know my work, you could probably look at this paragraph and conclude that I’m aligned with the Stephen Millers and the Tucker Carlsons of the world, instead of their inveterate opponent.

My glib phrasing was exacerbated by Twitter. If all you read is that one paragraph, then you’ll miss that the purpose of my Bloomberg column was to call for A) more immigration, and B) economic support for parents (which would disproportionately go to Hispanic and Black parents!). In other words, you’d miss that I’m arguing for policies that would boost Hispanic population growth, not suppress it. In other words, the stuff I’m calling for in that column isn’t eugenics; it’s a eugenicist’s nightmare.

But in the age of Twitter, that is the challenge writers face. You have to write each paragraph with the knowledge that people might only see that paragraph — especially in a paywalled piece, where most people can only read the tweet excerpts and not the whole thing. And I’m sad that my phrasing ended up convincing some Twitter readers that there’s one more eugenicist out there in America.

(I also think that my use of the word “assimilation” rubbed some people the wrong way; for many, it conjures a scary vision of forced cultural conformity, rather than just meaning “natural convergence of lifestyles as economic conditions equalize”, which is what I meant here.)

Anyway, the issue of population aging isn’t going away — for the U.S., and for most of the rest of the world as well. If we’re going to talk about economic policy in a serious and comprehensive way, we’re going to have to talk about fertility rates as well as immigration. But we have to talk about it in a way that respects personal choices, and which doesn’t play into the hands of the Tucker Carlsons and Stephen Millers. That’s a difficult channel to navigate, and in this case I didn’t do it as well as I should have. But I think it can be done.