Thursday, September 30, 2010

Guest Post: America's One-Child Policy?

The following is a guest post by Brian Hollar. He is enrolled in a joint J.D. and Ph.D. in economics program at George Mason University. Check out his blog, Thinking on the Margin, where he writes on a variety of topics, including, economics, photography, travel, and surviving (or not) grad school. 

A very interesting article by Jonathan Last has a fascinating overview of population trends going on in the US and elsewhere around the world. While it gives some rather ridiculous policy prescriptions (more roads = more babies?) and overstates the comparison of changes in American birthrates to China's One-Child Policy, it is still very much worth a read.

Here are a few thoughts in response to the article:

I am highly skeptical of the government being able to incentivize people to have more kids and wary of attempts to do so. (Look to China's ticking demographic time-bomb for an example of government trying to force a population structure to move in a certain direction.)  Many of the trends mentioned in this article are simply the expected result of increased prosperity, reliable birth control, and enhanced economic opportunity for women. I doubt any of these factors will change in the near-future. What this likely means for population, absent other exogenous forces coming into play, is slower growth and probable shrinkage. What this means for society, culture, and the economy is much less clear.

The forces reducing average birthrates affect religious people in the same way it affects the general population. There are still higher birthrates among weekly church attenders than there are in the general population, but that gap is shrinking as time progresses.  According to data from the General Social Survey from 2006, it looks like American women ages 30-44 are now having 1.90 kids on average. The numbers go up to 2.08 for weekly church attenders and down to 1.81 for lower-rate (and non) church attenders. Those numbers shift to 2.24 for weekly church attenders and 2.02 for lower-rate attenders when you control for women who have been married.  This gives an overall birthrate of 2.10 kids per woman age 30-44 who has been married at some point in her life.

Divorce and non-marriage certainly seem to contribute to the birthrate trends, both influencing and being influenced by all of the factors listed above and many others.  If marriage continues to become less common among younger women, birthrates will continue to drop.  What this means for the future of America (and the world) is much less certain.

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