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Record Low Birth Rates Belie The Boom In The Trump Economy

When people lack economic confidence, they lack the confidence to start families.

The headlines at Truthdig say that in the year before last, America experienced the lowest rate of population growth in 100 years. The US population grew by about 0.5% in 2018, the lowest rate of growth since 1917–1918. That figure suggests that there isn’t much boom in Trump’s economy. If consumers are confident about buying TVs, washers and dryers and cars, they seem to lack the economic confidence required to have kids. This is the bell tolling for the austerity policies forced upon Americans by the Republican Party.

According to Business Insider, the average cost to have a baby in America is about $10,000. If you’re lucky and you have insurance, you’re only on the hook for about half of that cost. In 2012 and 2014, I started my family with my wife and I don’t recall paying that much for maternal care. Somehow, we didn’t go into debt for our kids and everything worked out. But those national and state averages for out of pocket costs are intimidating. And God help you if your birth has complications for the costs only go up from there.

I know of one couple that had a premature birth. She required lots of incubator time, lots of additional testing, analyzing and treatment. The total bill was $1 million for that couple, and the insurance company picked up the tab. If they knew that such a mighty bill could come their would they have made a different choice about having kids? Probably. In America, health care has worse odds than Vegas.

All of this brings me to my next point. If the economy is so great, why aren’t we having more kids? To draw an analogy, out in the wild, animals will not have kids if there isn’t enough food or water to support them. They will move to a new location if there isn’t enough food or water where they are now. They will wither and die if the environment is too hostile for kids. I’d say that the Trump economy is too hostile for most people to have kids or we’d be seeing a bump in birth rates.

We could always rely upon immigration, but even that is on the way out. Migrations to America are running at the lowest rate we’ve seen in many years and there are two factors contributing to the low immigration rate: American hostility to immigrants in the form of regulations and walls (see the long waiting lists to get in). The second is that America isn’t seen in other countries as the land of opportunity like it used to be. Social mobility is the worst we’ve seen in many years, such that if you’re poor today, the odds of you moving up the ladder are much lower than they were in the past. And people in other countries can see the difference or they wouldn’t bother trying to come here.

I’d say that Trump is not all that interested in Making America Great Again. There must be something else on his mind, or we’d see our government compensating for low birthrates or encouraging greater immigration.

There is another trend afoot, too. With lower birth and immigration rates, there won’t be enough new people to make up for the boomers who are dying in greater numbers as they get older. And the much-maligned Millennials aren’t that interested in buying the giant houses left empty by the boomers. Many of the Millennials are pursuing a minimalist lifestyle. They’re cutting their costs of living by trading space and possessions for time. Rather than working their lives away to support a giant house, with a giant mortgage and the cost of filling that house with stuff, they’re buying smaller houses or no house at all. This too is a natural consequence of the austerity policies instituted by Republicans.

The low birth rates in America can be interpreted as a reflection of how little the wealthy care for the poor. In an article in The New Yorker on Abigail Disney, heiress to the Disney fortune, they discussed the way the wealthy tend to wall themselves from the rest of us with their cocoons of luxury. Disney first noticed this when as a kid, she was taken to the front of the lines at Disneyland, a perk earned by her family name and wealth. She expressed discomfort about this special treatment to her grandfather and recalled her experience:

As a child, she would go with her grandfather to Disneyland, where she was treated as a special guest. “He loved taking us to the front of the line,” she said. She would hang her head as they marched past other families who had been waiting for rides in the hot sun. “I’d say, ‘Grandpa, they hate us,’ ” she recalled. “And he’d say, ‘I worked so hard all those years so you could go to the front of the line.’ ”

Abigail Disney is worth $140 million today. She admits that she has never worked a day in her life and wonders what she did to deserve all that wealth. And she worries that such great concentrations of wealth are not healthy for our country. I submit that when wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few people, there is less money for the rest of us to earn to start and raise our families.

I’m a boomer and I started late. I’ve been lucky in that I managed to pick jobs that paid better than the national average and I have been working towards personal economic growth. I have a work ethic that I learned from my parents and that frame of mind has served me well. But I feel for the younger kids. I see what is against them now.

The kids who have gone to college in the last few decades have racked up enormous student debts, and have seen a very low rate of return for their education efforts. We know that the rate of return for college is low because student debt is now at record high levels of $1.6 trillion. If students were really able to find the opportunities promised by their education, they’d be able to pay down the debts quickly and then move on to buying a house and raising a family. This is a huge contributor to the current trend of declining population growth.

Medical debts are also playing a role. As noted earlier, maternal care is expensive. But if young people are hit with a chronic illness they could see a life of never-ending debt. If their parents are hit with cancer or some other chronic disease, they become caretakers of their parents as they watch the estate of their parents subsumed by health care bills.

At the same time, wages have remained relatively flat since the 1970s compared to income for the top 1%. While CEO pay has grown 940% during that time, wages have only grown by 12% since then. This would explain the record student debts, that better than 60% of all bankruptcies are due to medical debts and why young people today are not having as many kids as the previous generation. Wealth is more concentrated now than at any time since just before the Great Depression started in 1929.

I find deep irony in all of this for the Trump Administration, one that, by all accounts, is terribly concerned about abortion rates. I have read the story about the immigrant girl who, after taking one of two pills for an abortion, almost didn’t receive the second pill because the secretary of Health and Human Services was so very concerned that she shouldn’t be allowed to choose how to manage her own body. This Administration is missing the forest for the trees.

After decades of chanting “austerity” while sitting in repose, Republicans in Congress are getting their unanticipated wish. Who else can afford to raise a family besides their chosen few followers and fans? The wealthy have no problem having kids now. They can afford to have a parent stay at home. They can afford a nanny if they can’t be bothered to raise their own kids. They are using the economy to tell the rest of us that it’s time to stop having kids.

Now maybe I’m wrong about all this. Maybe I’ve misread the intentions of the fans of austerity economics. Perhaps the patrons of austerity really do get Global Warming, or Climate Change or whatever you want to call it. Maybe the fanbois of austerity actually understand that in order to reduce our carbon footprint, we just need to raise fewer kids and reduce our population.

We could reduce the number of people on the planet easily, just by educating girls. Once girls figure out that they can do more than just stay barefoot and pregnant, and how they can get pregnant in the first place, and that they can contribute to the economy as engineers, as economists, and as politicians, they delay childbirth and have fewer kids. Slate published a great article on this very subject a few years ago. In their research, they found that, controlling for all factors, educating girls was the single greatest factor in the decline of birth rates. They also estimate that by 2300, the number of humans would draw down to about 1 billion people.

That might not be such a bad thing. But I would like to believe that the declining population of humans in this country and worldwide, had more to do with educating girls than an extreme concentration of wealth.

Write on.

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