The progressive case for population growth.
Let’s get this out of the way first. I am not here to tell you to have children. I’m not your mother or your mother-in-law. I’m not the college classmate who posts endless photos of their progeny on Instagram. I’m not your priest, your pastor, your rabbi, or your imam. I’m not going to tell you about all the joy you’ll harvest as a parent or all the fun you’ll pay in recompense. Have a Nick Cannon-sized family, don’t have any kids at all, whatever. It’s your life.
That said, the ocean that is population is made up of the drops of countless individual decisions, and in the US and much of the world, it’s trending in only one direction. Total births and the general fertility rate in the US have fallen significantly over the past 15 years. While 2021 saw a 1 percent increase in births from the year before — the likely result of planned pregnancies postponed during the first difficult year of the pandemic, plus the reproductive benefits of remote work — that number was still more than half a million fewer than the US peak in 2007. The total fertility rate — the number of children women are projected to give birth to over the course of their lifetimes — stood at 1.67, well below the point needed to replace the population through reproduction alone. Nearly one in six Americans 55 and over is childless, a percentage that is only expected to grow. Without the boost of immigration, the US population growth rate would have essentially flatlined in recent years, and even with it, it grew by just 0.4 percent in 2022, among the lowest rates in the nation’s history.
For many conservatives, the long-running baby bust is nothing short of a national crisis. Figures like Republican Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance rail against what they call “the childless left” and lionize leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who has launched an aggressive effort to encourage his citizens to have more children. In this worldview, America’s low fertility rate isn’t just an economic or political challenge, but an indictment of a country that has turned self-interested and short-sighted, one on a path to “stagnation, loneliness, alienation — for decades to come,” in the words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.
Progressives, for their part, tend to see conservative concerns over declining births as a smokescreen for deeper fears about the changing complexion of America, with far-right figures like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson wielding the issue to stoke fears over the “great replacement” of white Americans. It doesn’t escape liberals’ notice that many of the same figures on the right worried about childlessness are also in favor of cutting off immigration, the most reliable source of new Americans, nor that few Republicans lined up last year behind Mitt Romney’s plan for a more generous child tax credit program, which the GOP senator specifically framed as a way to encourage Americans to have more kids. With the wounds from the overturning of Roe v. Wade still fresh, any policy that calls for boosting birth rates sounds suspiciously like yet another conservative attempt to control reproductive autonomy. And anyway, given everything from the grim future of climate change to the backbreaking cost of raising children in America, does it even make sense to bring more kids into this country, this world?
The political divide on population isn’t just a matter of opinion; you can see it in fertility and population data. The red states of Florida and Texas had the most incoming new residents in 2022, while the blue bulwarks of New York and California lost over 600,000 residents combined. Of the 20 states with the highest fertility rates in the US, only two — Hawaii and New Jersey — went for Joe Biden in 2020.
While before 1995 there was only a small difference in fertility rates between conservatives and liberals, that gap has grown considerably in the years since, with the most pro-Biden counties in 2020 having almost 25 percent lower total fertility rates than the most pro-Trump counties, according to the Institute for Family Studies. As the institute’s Lyman Stone has put it, “Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, increasingly inhabit different worlds in terms of family life.”
This much we should be able to agree on, however: Declining population growth really does pose existential challenges to America, and without more children, the country really does face a future that is less innovative, less wealthy, and less vibrant. And while liberals have every reason to look askance at conservative fear-mongering about a population bust, the point of liberalism is — or should be — to create the conditions that allow people to freely live the lives they want to lead, to remove whenever possible the economic, political, or social obstacles in their way. The reality is that America has room for more children; it needs them to thrive; and most of all, people do want the freedom to choose the family sizes they desire, including larger ones. It’s a future that progressives can — and should — help create.
We actually can have more kids
For most of the history of the debate over population, the question wasn’t whether we were having too few kids, but too many — and progressives generally fell on the latter side.
Environmentalists were some of the loudest voices for population control during the globally fertile 1960s, urging people to limit family sizes, and sometimes even supporting more coercive restrictions. While the predicted “population bomb” leading to wide-scale starvation and catastrophe never detonated — fertility rates globally fell rapidly from peaks in the 1960s, even as the world proved ever more capable of feeding a still-growing humanity — those old terrors that we would outbreed the planet’s carrying capacity never quite went away. Instead, they’ve been grafted into new worries about climate change and the fear that children born into the world today won’t just contribute to further warming but could become the casualties of climate catastrophe.
That’s how you end up with polls that find nearly a quarter of US adults of reproductive age say that climate change has made them reconsider having a child of their own, a worry that is especially weighing on younger people. It’s why you hear quotes like this one from the singer Miley Cyrus, who said in 2019 that “until I feel like my kid would live on an Earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that.” It’s why you see startling numbers like this one from a paper published in 2017 arguing that every child averted in a developed country prevents the equivalent of nearly 60 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. And given that climate action overwhelmingly remains a priority for Democrats versus Republicans, it’s not surprising that a hypothetical baby’s future carbon footprint would weigh much more heavily on progressives.
But while it’s true that a child born today will be responsible for adding more carbon into the atmosphere, that 60-metric-ton figure was derived from work by researchers in 2009 who added up not just the lifetime emissions of the child, but dwindling portions of the lifetime emissions of that child’s descendants, all the way until 2400 — and making all of that the responsibility of the parents. And that number assumes that the world will make no additional progress in decarbonizing the global economy, which already isn’t true. In a rich country like the US, a baby born today will emit less CO2 on average over the course of their lifetime than their parents did; according to the International Energy Agency, if the world achieves carbon neutrality by 2050, the carbon footprint of those New Year’s babies could be 10 times smaller than that of their grandparents.
Just as technological innovation in agriculture helped ensure the population bomb was a dud after the 1960s, innovation in energy could do the same for climate change and population. The absolute number of people on the planet isn’t the ultimate factor in worsening climate change. It’s how those people will live, and what kind of energy they’ll consume. A global economy that rapidly transitions to low- and zero-carbon sources of energy — which, believe it or not, is what’s happening today — is one that will make space for more human beings.
As for those fears that having a child would doom them to life in a hot hellscape, the world now appears to be on a path to dodge the worst-case climate scenarios. This isn’t to minimize the very real suffering that will be unavoidable thanks to warming, especially in poorer countries, but a child born today almost anywhere around the world has a better chance of living a good, long life than at almost any other time in the whole of human history.
That is in many ways a factor of just how terrible life has been for the vast majority of our time on the planet — by one estimate, until very recently a quarter of all infants died before they turned 1 — but it should also remind us that if a high chance of misery and suffering was enough to keep humans from reproducing, we would have died out long ago.
We actually do need more kids
As a father myself, I can tell you that overpopulation worriers have this much right: Children consume. Resources, energy, and above all else, time — more time than you can possibly imagine. But while no parent looks at their baby and thinks, “Well, there’s a future contributor to national GDP,” the truth is that today’s children are tomorrow’s workers and innovators. Children need us, but in time, all of us will need them.
With a median age of 38.8 years — the point at which half of the population is older and half is younger — the US as a country is creeping into middle age. That number has increased by 3.4 years since 2000, and in 2021 only one state saw its median age drop — ironically Maine, still by far the oldest state in the country, though it became slightly younger only thanks to a pandemic-driven influx of young people.
According to 2020 projections from the Census Bureau, by 2034, adults 65 and older will outnumber children for the first time in the nation’s history. And while much of that is due to historical increases in life expectancy — though that trend reversed at least temporarily during the pandemic — and the disproportionate size of the graying baby boomer generation, a large part comes down to Americans having fewer children.
While Americans are working later into life than they did decades ago, the reality is that an aging country is one that will have a dwindling number of young workers to support a growing number of elderly. Today there are around three and a half working-age adults to support every American eligible for Social Security. By 2060, that is projected to fall to two and a half workers for every retiree. Social Security isn’t a Ponzi scheme, but without enough young workers putting in payroll taxes, it can’t continue in its current form.
One way out of this could be through enhancing productivity: getting more output from every worker. But fewer young people undercuts this as well. A study of 33 OECD nations between 1960 and 2012 found that while countries can remain inventive even as they age, rates of innovation eventually begin to stagnate and decline. As a 44-year-old it pains me to say this, but creativity is a quality most concentrated in the young. With fewer children, a country doesn’t just reduce its sheer numbers of future workers, but the chance that some among them will have an idea that changes the world, the kind of idea that is much more likely to come from a 25-year-old than a 65-year-old. Without them, we risk a future not just of slowing and even declining population, but of economic stagnation.
That’s a future that people of every political persuasion should wish to avoid, but progressives should have a special interest in keeping America young-ish. While it’s not as simple as saying that people inevitably grow more conservative as they age, there’s no doubt that the elderly are a powerful political demographic in the US, voting at higher rates than any other age group. Older Americans are less worried about climate change, less supportive of immigration, and less liberal overall. Perhaps that will change when today’s millennials are posting from retirement homes, but without a counteracting force of new, young voters, progressives will find themselves fighting an uphill battle with fewer troops.
We actually do want more kids
The cognitive dissonance that progressives face around pro-natalist policy boils down to three words: Roe v. Wade. For decades, liberals have fought for Americans to have the right to reproductive autonomy, for being able to choose when and if they want to have a child. To be pro-abortion rights, in practice, means to be in favor of having the choice not to have that child. So it’s not surprising that any hint that the government should be exploring policies that encourage Americans to have more children looks suspicious, especially at a moment when those rights are under increasing attack from the right.
The fight for reproductive justice is important and must continue. But the battle over the right to end an unwanted pregnancy can sometimes elide a different kind of reproductive choice: the choice to have the number of children they want.
While the total fertility rate in the US in 2021 was 1.67 children per woman and has mostly been declining for years, desired fertility — the number of children women say they want to have — is higher, around 2.7 children. That difference is known as the fertility gap, and unlike the actual number of children being born in the US, it has grown in recent years. Even taking into account the possibility that desired fertility may partially reflect the number of children people think they should have versus the number they want, the fertility gap indicates there is a desire to have more children that isn’t being met. And if liberals are in the business of designing policies that help people achieve the lives they want, closing that fertility gap by creating the conditions to make it easier for people to have more children if they choose should be on the progressive agenda.
To do that, however, progressives need to understand that the economic obstacles to having more kids are often worse in states and cities run by progressives. Take housing: While it’s not as simple as saying that the kind of expensive housing found in blue, coastal cities depresses fertility, it is clear that high rent or housing prices delay fertility, as would-be parents are forced to save up to afford room for their offspring. And delayed fertility is, over time, depressed fertility: The later you begin the process of having children, the less time available to have more children, as the effects of advanced age begin to depress fertility for both men and women.
One positive example here is, surprisingly, Japan, where evidence suggests that the country’s relatively inexpensive housing — a product of liberal planning rules that make it easy to build — has helped keep its low fertility rates from dropping further, even as neighboring countries with more expensive housing have seen births continue to plummet.
The same is true for child care. As my Vox colleague Rachel Cohen wrote last year, as bad as you might think the child care crisis is in America, the reality is somehow worse. The average cost of child care in the US now exceeds $10,000 a year. That’s an enormous burden for working- and middle-class families, but it also discourages people who would have more children from doing so. Reducing the cost of care is one of the few proven ways of boosting fertility over the long term; generous government support for child care is one of the reasons why France has one of the highest birth rates in Europe. As it happens, solving the child care crisis is also a key progressive priority; remember 2021’s “Child Care Is Infrastructure Act”? That bill, like so much else from the brief post-2020 period of Democratic optimism, was pitched at working families that need all the help they can get.
And while the most effective way to grow population over the long term is the old-fashioned one — have more children — liberalizing immigration to add more Americans would pay off immediately. But though immigration to the US spiked last year due to the relaxation of Covid- and Trump-era restrictions, the flow of new foreign-born immigrants as a percentage of total US population is near historic lows. While the US is fortunate enough to be by far the most popular destination for would-be immigrants — giving the country an advantage that more closed low-fertility countries like China and Japan do not enjoy — it will forfeit that benefit if anti-immigration hardliners get their way. Thirty-nine percent of Democrats are already in favor of increasing legal immigration levels, according to a poll last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, while 54 percent want to give undocumented migrants a path to citizenship. They may primarily be motivated by concerns over justice and welfare, but immigration liberalization would have the side effect of powering American dynamism and growth.
Progressive policies that benefit today’s children are also what must be in place to ensure that we have tomorrow’s children — children we need, that the world can support, and that we want. The progressive agenda should be about empowering people to live the lives they desire, to pursue their own path to happiness, and children can and should be part of that. Conservatives are right that a baby bust without end threatens America’s future, but progressives don’t have to sign off on their political opponents’ monochromatic vision of that future to understand that population matters to all of us.
Bryan Walsh is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section, which covers the policies, people, and forces that could make the future a better place for everyone. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor — and wrote a book on existential risk.