The 2020 Census found that the U.S. population grew at its slowest rate since the Great Depression. The current total fertility rate (TFR) is about 1.7 births per woman—far below the replacement level of 2.1. This trend has not been viewed positively by some government officials and economists, to say the least. Competition with China (whose population is projected to peak and then begin declining within a few years), future economic growth, the sustainability of our social security system, and national security are a few of the concerns cited regarding the trend toward slower U.S. population growth.
While there are elements of validity to each of these potential challenges, there are also ways to ameliorate each of them (more on that later). In our view, slower population growth is more of a benefit than a travesty to future generations—particularly if we, as a country, are ready and willing to move past the status quo.
A Win for Teens
The fertility rate is declining for all age groups (except for the over-40 set), but it’s declining most drastically among teens. The teen birth rate in the U.S. is at an all-time low since the government began collecting data from this group. In 2007, the most recent high, the birth rate among 15–19-year-olds was 41.5 births per 1,000. In 2019, it was 16.7 births per 1,000 teens—down 60% in just a dozen years. (It’s now 73% below the 1991 high of 61.8 per 1,000). Less sex in a predominantly digital age, increased contraceptive use, and more information about pregnancy prevention have contributed to the decline.
These declines have positive pay-offs: When access to affordable birth control increases, the percentage of young women leaving high school drops by double digits, according to a University of Colorado Boulder study that followed more than 170,000 women for seven years. Outcomes for babies and children are better too, when they’re born to parents who’ve completed their teen years.
Not Bad for Economics, Either
In order to maintain global supremacy and geopolitical dominance, critics of lower fertility say that we need population growth to fuel economic growth. We say that economic programs and policies can change to reflect new demographic trends.
More important than population growth is investment in the productivity of those already here—investment in their health, their educations, and their ideas. There are currently nearly 10 million unemployed Americans, and there is untapped potential among groups who don’t fit the definition of unemployed but may be more inclined to join the workforce if flexible hours and workplace accommodations could be made (e.g. parents of young children, people with disabilities).
Investing in the Here and Now
There is also untapped potential in uplifting communities historically left out of the U.S.’s upper echelons. Ten and a half million children in the U.S. grow up in poverty—let’s invest in them and their future productivity by providing good health care, education, housing, and nutrition programs.
In a country that grapples with a dark history of white supremacy and racism, it is more important than ever to invest in diverse perspectives and backgrounds that make the American fabric what it is today. Rather than stripping communities of their reproductive rights, voting rights, and social safety nets, politicians could focus on how to better empower communities to lead their country toward a more equitable future.
This is necessary not only as an act of economic survival, but anti-racism. Black babies are more than twice as likely to die as white babies in the U.S., while Black mothers are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white mothers. Calls for more children begs the question: which children? … born to whom? … with what color skin?
Cautious Optimism for Climate Mitigation
A child born in the United States adds 9,441 metric tons to the mother’s carbon emissions. This number is merely 1,384 tons in China and 56 tons in Bangladesh. Population is not just in the numbers; it is in the composition, consumption, and distribution of individuals. And the U.S. population, while growing more slowly now than in the past, has one of the highest per capita emissions rates in the world.
Slower rates of population growth are important for climate mitigation. While a small fraction of the world’s fossil fuel corporations drive the climate crisis, individuals in high consuming countries add to growing rates of congestion, biodiversity loss, and pollution around the world. And they purchase the products and use the services of the high-emitting corporations mentioned above.
Many regions throughout the world have already experienced a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. This is already catastrophic; about 14% of Earth’s population is exposed to extreme heat waves at least once every five years. It is more important than ever to reverse the climate crisis, and voluntary family planning is one way we can do that. Having fewer children in high consuming countries is one of the best ways to slow the faucet of already overflowing carbon emissions.