BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Who doesn’t love babies? They’re bundles of pure innocence and promise. To economists they’re more than that, though. They’re future consumers, future employers, future innovators. So, just from a statistical perspective, up to a point, the more babies that emerge from the nation’s maternity wards, the better our future.
And tThe richer our potential as a country.
But what happens when the rate at which babies are born drops? What happens when our so-called replacement rate lags? That is, we fail to birth enough babies for a generation to fully replace itself?
Answer — mostly bad things. And that’s the course we’re on.
The National Center for Health Statistics says the U.S. birth rate declined for the sixth consecutive year in 2020. After an increase in 2014, the U.S. rate is down an average of 2 percent per year. In terms of raw numbers, 2020 saw the lowest number of births since 1979.
That trend is being reflected in Kern County. Even as our population continues to move inexorably toward 1 million — it’s at about 915,000 now — it’s lagging in replacement rate. Kern’s population has grown 3.6 percent since 2015, but its birth rate during that same span has fallen a full 13 percent.
Richard Gearhart, an Associate Professor of Economics at CSUB, says the potential ramifications are many.
“When you decrease the birth rate, you decrease the probability of having multiple billionaires,” he said. “Instead of 10 Elon Musks you might have only five Elon Musks. So you decrease the number of opportunities to hit on these people who drive economic growth.”
Since a decline in the birth rate also means fewer future workers, it could spur increased investment in automation such as self-serve kiosks. That can hurt retail and restaurant workers.
It also places an immediate fiscal burden on people alive today who are paying for the obligations promised to people who are nearing retirement age, such as Social Security, Medicare, state pensions, and the like. So, without some reform, additional taxes and less spending elsewhere may be inevitable.
One possible solution is increasing immigration, but the country’s foreign-born population has been flat — less than 0.5 percent growth in 2019.
In the end, it’s all about making babies, which is about as personal a decision as we can make as civilized humans. The nation’s future economic health is probably not a factor in that decision, but maybe it should be.