A reply to the hysterical arguments made by progressive liberals and others who should know better.
A skills-based immigration system is a possible answer to American demographic decline.
Now that Elon Musk has tweeted that “population collapse is potentially the greatest risk to the future of civilization,” it must be true. America’s total fertility rate fell in 2020 to just 1.67 births per female, the lowest in history, and well below the replacement level of 2.1. Ten years ago, when I published How Civilizations Die), the United States still made babies at the replacement rate, though (as I noted) this depended on high fertility among two groups of Americans: Evangelical Christians and Hispanics.
Now demographic winter has descended on America, and there is no obvious path to recovery. The only medium-term solution lies in immigration of skilled adults, and the only two prospective sources of large-scale immigration of skilled adults are China and India.
Civilizations die because they want to. Nations that live for the present and eschew a vision of their future do not take the trouble to raise children. Today’s demographic decline has precedents in the hollowing-out of Hellenistic Greece after the Alexandrian conquests, and the decline of Rome several centuries later.
In the modern era, religious commitment has been the strongest predictor of the desire to bring future generations into the world; other writers, notably the British demographer Eric Kaufmann, have made parallel arguments. What demographers call the great fertility transition occurred with urbanization and the end of child labor. In agricultural societies and early modern industry children were cheap labor and considered (as in wrongful death lawsuits) a resource with a definable monetary value. Once national pension systems replaced family care for the aged, and children no longer were expected to work until early adulthood, children offered spiritual rather than monetary value.
Now we have another ten years’ worth of data, and they bear out my 2011 thesis: the decline in American fertility tracks (and in fact is predicted by) the decline in religious commitment among Americans. This has deep implications for public policy. If religious faith is the most important determinant of fertility, public policy can have only a modest impact on birth rates.
The annual Gallup survey on American attitudes towards religion includes the question, “How important would you say religion is in your own life — very important, fairly important, or not very important?” As shown in the above chart, the US Total Fertility Rate tracks the percentage who answered “very important” closely. The link between fertility and faith passes all the tests for statistical robustness.
Where data are available, we observe a close relationship between religious commitment and fertility. In a May 2021 survey, the Pew Institute reported, “Orthodox Jewish adults report having an average of 3.3 children, while non-Orthodox Jews have an average of 1.4 children. Orthodox Jews also are five years younger, on average, when they give birth to their first child (23.6 vs. 28.6 among non-Orthodox Jews).”
Data for American Christians are less clear-cut. Samuel Perry and Cyrus Schleifer of the University of Oklahoma reported in 2020 that fertility fell to 2.3 children in 2016 from 2.7 children in 1972. The rate of church attendance had a small positive correlation with fertility, they concluded, but the fertility of conservative Protestants declined regardless of the rate of church attendance.
Arguably, other factors drove American fertility down. Immigration (including illegal) from Latin America dropped off sharply after the 2008 financial crisis, and Hispanics were disproportionate contributors to fertility. The Hispanic birth rate dropped from 97.4 births per 1,000 women in 2007 to 65.3 births per 1,000 women in 2019, a faster rate of decline than among the non-Hispanic population. That may have to do with economic factors, but it could also reflect the assimilation of Hispanics into mainstream American culture. We do not have enough evidence to judge.
Why has religious commitment declined? Part of the blame may lie with religious leadership.
The Gallup data for American confidence in organized religion show a fall by about half since 1973 in the proportion of respondents who have “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in religious institutions. Remarkably, the decline in religious commitment is overwhelmingly a Protestant phenomenon, according to the Gallup data. Since the early 1950s, the proportion of Americans who identify as Catholic has remained in the mid-20 percent range, while the proportion of Protestants has collapsed by about half. The percentage who identify with no religion rose from around zero in the early 1950s to 20 percent in 2020. Catholic numbers, to be sure, are supported by immigration from mainly Catholic countries.
The fall in religious affiliation is mainly a Protestant phenomenon, but the decline in fertility is similar across denominations. Sociologist David Ayers, in a July 2021 study for Crisis magazine, concluded “in the United States, the facts show sharp drops in fertility among Catholic women overall, and among those who have ever been married, similar to what we find among Americans as a whole.”
The great wave of secularization came to America, the country “with the spirit of a church,” somewhat later than it did to the rest of the industrial world and had the same impact on fertility. Secular trends of this kind are difficult to reverse (but not impossible: Russia’s total fertility rate rose from a 1999 low of 1.16 to an estimated 1.83 in 2020).
Among the high-income countries only Israel, with a total fertility rate (TFR) just over 3—almost double its peer nation average—has a fertility rate above replacement. Excluding the highly religious Haredi portion of the Israeli population, the fertility rate is still 2.6, far higher than the rest of the industrial world.
Israel is the exception that proves the rule. By Western standards, Israel is the most religious among the high-income nations. 98 percent of Jewish Israelis “always” place a mezuzah (a small box containing hand-written Bible verses) on their door, 92 percent circumcise their male children, 70 percent maintain Jewish dietary laws at home, 70 percent fast on Yom Kippur, and 78 percent take part in a Passover Seder, according to one survey. A Jew’s decision to live in Israel with all the attendant risks and obligations (including universal military service) by itself implies a high degree of faith even among the professedly secular.
Germany has an extremely low fertility rate but has had considerable success in attracting skilled or semi-skilled immigrants. As of 2018, 4.8 million citizens of other European Union countries had moved to Germany, almost 10 percent of the country’s 49 million citizens of working age (20 to 64 years old). But this trend cannot continue for long because the fertility rate of the countries that sent migrants to Germany (Poland, Rumania, Italy, Spain and so forth) is even lower than Germany’s.
Germany’s demographic profile appears dire, but it has postponed the inevitable aging crisis through skilled immigration. Italy’s situation seems hopeless; its population is aging faster than its peers and it is losing skilled working-age adults rather than importing them. Immigrants to Italy come overwhelmingly from Africa and the Middle East and cannot replace the diminishing number of productive adults.
The position of the United States is somewhat better than the high-income country average for projected old-age dependency (China’s much-discussed demographic problem is about the same as the high-income average). But the United States is headed in the same direction as Germany and China.
What should the United States do about this? Declining fertility is a cultural and confessional phenomenon and not directly susceptible to government initiatives. There are only three options open to public policy:
- Encourage a higher fertility rate through economic incentives;
- Attempt to reverse the long-term decline in productivity growth to allow a smaller base of taxpayers to support a larger proportion of retirees;
- Encourage the immigration of working-age adults who contribute more to the social insurance system than they take from it.
The first option is desirable but likely to have a small effect. The second and third options are inseparable. Reversing the long-term decline of labor productivity requires the reconstruction of America’s depleted manufacturing sector, and that in return requires a much larger number of engineers than American universities presently produce. The United States graduates only 40,000 mechanical engineers each year, about the same as Germany. Rebuilding American industry will require skilled immigrants.
Like most industrial countries, the United States confronts a sharp drop-off in labor force growth and rapid aging of the adult population. Economic incentives for childbearing can mitigate, but not reverse, the infertility trend. We might adopt a sliding scale of Social Security and Medicare deductions to the benefit of large families (childless people are “free riders” on the social insurance system because they do not invest in the next generation of prospective contributors), and increase the per-child income tax deduction. But bringing children into the world ceased to be an economic decision generations ago; today it is an act of faith, and the tide of faith is receding.
The only medium-term mitigation of demographic decline can come through immigration, specifically the immigration of skilled individuals who are likely to contribute more to the economy than they cost. Estimates of the cost of illegal immigration to the U.S. range from $53 billion (Heritage Foundation) to the $200 billion figure cited by former President Trump. But any negative number is unacceptable; immigration policy must aim for a positive economic contribution.
There are only two sources of large numbers of skilled working-age adults, namely China and India. Asian Americans numbered 19.9 million in the 2020 Census, including 4.1 million Chinese, 4 million Indians, and 1.5 million Koreans. By any measure, Asian Americans are successful. 32.4 percent of Asian American households earn in excess of $100,000 a year, compared to 20.1 percent of all American households. Fifty percent of Asian-Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 42 percent of the total population.
America’s predicament calls for a radical revision of U.S. immigration policy to favor skilled adults, in emulation of Australian and Canadian standards. China in 2015 awarded 1.2 million bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering according to the National Science Foundation, six times the number in the United States, and the absolute number of Chinese graduates as well as the ratio of Chinese to American graduates have grown since then.
We complain about China’s political system, but there is nothing the United States can do to change it. The majority of China’s 1.4 billion people concern themselves with their own conditions of life, and per capita income in China rose tenfold from 1995 to 2020. But among China’s 1.4 billion people are many tens of millions who detest the authoritarian regime and would prefer to raise their children in the United States. And China’s democrats are disproportionately educated and enterprising adults of young working age.
We cannot export democracy to China, but we can import millions of its democratic aspirants. Numerous times in history, a great migration of human capital has caused periods of extraordinary economic growth and a shift in relative power relations. Examples include the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century, which contributed to Holland’s rise as an economic and military power; the migration of Huguenots to England and Prussia after the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes; the German migration to America’s Midwest after the failed 1848 revolution; and the migration to the United States of thousands of Europe’s best scientists before and during World War II.
Among all the comparisons of American and Chinese economic strength, we should keep in that China cannot make Americans into Chinese, but America can make Chinese into Americans. The struggle for predominance in this century will depend not on any particular technology or group of technologies, but on human capital. Our capacity to integrate human capital is our only natural advantage and it may prove to be our decisive strength.
The immigration policy outlined above is not the best solution to America’s economic problems, nor indeed is it a solution in the long term. The optimal solution is to reverse America’s cultural decline of the past two generations, but that is beyond the competence of public policy. An inspirational leader might summon Americans to a sense of national purpose, as John F. Kennedy did with the Apollo program or Ronald Reagan with the Strategic Defense Initiatives, and elicit the better angels of our nature. We do not know who such a leader might be. In the meantime we must play the hand that we were dealt.
The arrival of a large number of Chinese, Indian, or other skilled immigrants would produce a degree of social friction that should not be minimized. Highly-qualified immigrants make a net contribution to society (they add more economic value and pay more taxes than they cost); in the large, their contributions represent a net benefit to other Americans. But economic life is not always lived in the large. Locally, their presence would set a higher bar for tertiary education and workforce advancement for many other Americans. Some exacerbation of social tensions would be inevitable.
In the long term, moreover, Asian immigrants will not reverse the long-term demographic decline. The immigration of skilled adults only plugs the hole left by the fertility decline of the previous generation. The Asian-American total fertility rate is below the national average (at 1.53 for Asian-Americans in 2018 vs. 1.72 for all Americans).
For the time being, the best that we can do is to buy time. But time is well worth buying. If America loses the Fourth Industrial Revolution to China, our standard of living and our capacity to recuperate will be severely, perhaps permanently impaired, as I argued in a December 2021 monograph for the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life. Skilled immigration will give us a competitive edge against China, and the wherewithal to address our fundamental problems. It may not be the best solution, but it is the best that public policy can devise under adverse circumstances.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.