We are a nation of immigrants. I’m a second-generation American. I was born in the United States, as were my parents. But all four of my grandparents were born in Europe. Unless you’re a Native American — and according to the last U.S. Census, in 2013 only about 2 percent of us qualified — the other 98 percent of us (and our ancestors) came from somewhere else.
Your forebears may have come over on the Mayflower, but you still come from immigrant stock, just like the rest of us. Not many vacationing tourists in the 17th through early 20th centuries came on a cruise, liked what they saw, and decided to overstay their visas. Instead, they sold everything they owned, kissed their families goodbye, and in many cases never returned to their home countries again.
Demographers use the term “replacement fertility rate” to describe the number of live births required to keep a population count steady. And we are faced with the same dilemma as most Western countries: The U.S. population is aging, and the replacement fertility rate among women of childbearing age is falling.
The World Resources Institute says the number of live births needed to sustain a population is generally agreed to be 2.1 per woman. That means that in any given population, women of childbearing age will need to have an average of 2.1 babies apiece just to keep the population count steady. The exceptions are countries ravaged by death, disease and malnutrition. Those places may need a rate of 3 or more to stay even.
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According to the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau, the current U.S. birth rate is about 1.9 births per woman over her lifetime, which is too low to stabilize our population. Without increased immigration to make up the difference, two undesirable results will occur:
▪ The U.S. will exhibit a steady decline in population.
▪ The average age of the country’s citizens will steadily grow older.
Without a steady or growing population base, who will pay the increasing taxes needed to keep our infrastructure repaired? Who will assure our government, schools, hospitals and military are staffed and equipped? Who will keep the Medicare and Social Security balls rolling?
The U.S. is not alone in having a birth rate lower than the required replacement rate. According to the European Commission, in 2014 the 28 European Union member states had a combined fertility rate of only 1.58 live births per woman — far below the replacement rate target. Germany is at 1.50, and Italy is at 1.39. Fewer babies were born in Italy in 2012 than any year since the country was founded in 1861.
Eastern Asia is in even worse shape: the Japan Times pegs Japan’s replacement fertility rate at 1.43, Korea at 1.19, and Hong Kong at 1.12.
What to do? As China has found out with their unfortunate one-child policy, started in 1979 and in place for 36 years, demographic missteps last a long, long time. It left the country with a replacement fertility rate of only 1.5.
In our country, the solutions boil down to encouraging younger U.S. citizens to have more babies (highly unlikely), forcing baby boomers to stay in the workforce instead of retiring, or admitting many more immigrants (both legal and illegal).
The only solution that makes any sense is for Congress to step up and rewrite our immigration policy to encourage legal immigration across a wide front. Failing that action, we are doomed to a shrinking and aging population — with all the unintended consequences. It would take generations to reverse the results.
Michael L. Pandzik is the retired founding president and CEO of the National Cable Television Cooperative, and a retired captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve.