The Fertility Factor

On Friday former Florida governor Jeb Bush — who apparently is entertaining notions of a run for the White House — gave an interesting speech on immigration in which “fertility” came into play

Bush is a proponent of immigration reform who believes that immigration is good for the United States.  (Of course, it’s hard to argue with that proposition, in view of the fact that the vast majority of Americans trace their family trees to hardy, self-sacrificing, risk-taking immigrants.)  In making the economic case for reform, Bush noted that immigrants start more businesses, have more intact families, and are more “fertile” — leading to a younger population.

Odd to hear politicians talking about “fertility,” isn’t it?  It’s a subject that makes people uncomfortable.  Those of us who lived through the “population bomb” era remember the dire predictions of mass starvation, food riots, and other threats from overpopulation, so how can having large families suddenly be a good thing again?  There are socioeconomic and religious and other factors at play as well.  Unmarried teenagers are fertile, but we aren’t encouraging them to have babies to help the country grow.  “Native-born” Americans, to use Bush’s phrase, are fertile, too — in the sense that they are physically capable of having children — but many of them have taken steps to control that fertility in order to end up with manageable families they can provide for.  Those families think they are being responsible.  Is Bush suggesting, instead, that they are being selfish and unpatriotic?

The mathematics of population growth, maintenance, and decline are indisputable.  Around the developed world, there are countries that are shrinking, with birthrates that are too low to fully replace those who die.  The demographic reality has a devastating political impact, because without young people to pay for the generous retirement and health care and housing programs for the aged, the social welfare model becomes unsupportable.  That’s why many countries with low birth rates are taking steps to encourage young couples to have larger families.  Have more children, so they can grow up, get jobs, pay taxes, and help those long-lived seniors enjoy their comfortable retirements!

Perhaps America will join the list of countries that provide economic incentives for larger families — or perhaps we’ll achieve that result through policies that welcome more of those “fertile” immigrants.  Either way, look for “fertility” to be an increasing topic of national conversation in the years to come. 

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