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Behind the falling US birthrate: too much student debt to afford kids?

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"This is something that we have not had during earlier recessions," says Chris Christopher, senior economist at IHS Global Insight, an international consulting group. If college costs keep rising and students continue to borrow heavily to pay for their education, the record-low birthrate may become the "new normal," he suggests. "This is a real monkey wrench in the works of our families and economy."

In some respects, the birthrate drop simply follows the century-long demographic glide path to smaller families, measured by fewer children per woman. Many nations in Western Europe, from Spain to Italy to Germany, are further along it, hitting a negative total fertility rate. America might have already hit that point, too, if not for higher immigration and the tendency of immigrant women to have more children than native-born women.

But the economic implications of a shrinking population are worrisome to many economists and political leaders. When the national fertility rate falls below the population replacement rate of 2.1 babies per woman – as it has in developed countries including Japan (1.4), Singapore (0.8), Norway (1.7), and Britain (1.9) – long-term plans for productivity and the social safety net become inviable.

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