Acton Commentary

Debt and the Birth Dearth


Debt Chart

Fertility rate, United States: 2.1 births per woman - 2008
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators

A number of important trends were revealed by the latest Census data, but none more important than the dynamic between demographics, economics, and morality. Yet the connection between the birthrate and American debt has been overlooked, in part because the nearly 10 percent increase in U.S. population from 2000 to 2010 hides the underlying drop in birthrate to its lowest levels in nearly a century. The vast majority of the decline in birthrate over the last decade has occurred since 2008, and the fertility rate in America also dipped below replacement levels in 2009, to a low of 2.01 children per woman (the replacement rate is 2.1).

While the intergenerational effects of these declines will continue to ripple forward through time, the dearth of births America has undergone in the last three decades is having profound consequences today. Former Pennsylvania senator and presidential hopeful Rick Santorum blames the current public debt crisis in America on an “abortion culture.” Although Santorum’s comments will certainly be harshly criticized, the culture warrior’s contentions on this issue ring true. Focusing especially on the solvency of Social Security, Santorum said that “the design would work a lot better if we had stable demographic trends.”

There are a host of reasons that the birthrate in America has declined over the last 40 years. Santorum points rightly to the legal and cultural shift inaugurated with the nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973. And in the past decade, we have seen the pursuit of a radical environmental agenda by fringe elements that have characterized human life as inherently destructive and harmful to the natural world. The broader cultural implications of this kind of misanthropy should not be underestimated, especially as it filters out into the mainstream.

But financial ecology plays an important role as well. The downturn in the birthrate over the last few years reflects the pessimism and perceived constraint of raising children in the midst of economic recession. Healthy and vibrant economies promote the flourishing of healthy and vibrant families. But the reverse is also true. The vitality of each social institution is linked with the welfare of others, and the microeconomic effects felt by families necessarily have macroeconomic implications.

Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in Europe, and the recent austerity measures and civil unrest across that continent should serve as a cautionary tale for what could be in store for America if our demographic trends continue. As Samuel Gregg has written so cogently, however, demography is not destiny. “Demography is only one variable among many. Moreover individuals and nations can make choices, and choices change our future,” he says. “Sometimes circumstances, such as the global economy’s present problems, can provide the incentive and opportunity to break away from apparently unalterable paths.”

This points to the way forward for America to reverse the birth dearth and break away from the fatal connection between the welfare state mentality and declining populations. America certainly has a more comfortable margin than many of the developed nations in Western Europe. This is in part because, more than any other such country, the United States has relied on large immigrant populations to offset decreases in births.

But even so, the public debt crisis, driven largely by the looming insolvency of numerous entitlement programs, is symptomatic of the nation’s woes and should not be ignored. America needs a renewal of the moral ecology that places primary value on dignity and respect for human life. We need a moral culture that prizes having children, that celebrates parenthood as a legitimate and praiseworthy vocation.

Without this kind of renewal, which would result in the literal “revival,” or coming to life again, of the nation, there is far worse in store for us than chronically unbalanced budgets. Jesus taught Christians to pray, “Forgive us our debts.” If we do not renew and reform our culture along the lines suggested here, a renewal that must be led by Christians acting as agents of transformative grace, the debts for which we must pray forgiveness will be far weightier than those incurred by the federal government.