AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
The West is facing a truly existential problem: year over year, women are not having enough children to meet the population replacement rate. While many governments are frantically implementing new policies to reverse this alarming trend, they largely fail to address the root causes of secularization and dissolution of the family unit that are driving declining fertility rates.
2021 marked the first time since 1937 that the U.S. population grew by fewer than one million people – a startling statistic given that the baseline population is significantly larger than it was in decades past, and nearly one-quarter of the new growth can be attributed to legal migration into the country. Although the U.S. fertility rate ticked up 1% to 1.782 births per woman in 2022 from 2021, it still remains well below the replacement rate of 2.1.
The United States is hardly alone in facing this phenomenon. According to a United Nations report released last year, “In 2021, the average fertility of the world’s population stood at 2.3 births per woman over a lifetime, having fallen from about 5 births per woman in 1950.” Furthermore, “In 2020, the global population growth rate fell under 1 percent per year for the first time since 1950.”
Most of the global population growth is being driven in developing nations, while the developed world has experienced significantly slowed growth. The populations of the United States plus 60 countries in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand are all forecasted to shrink by one percent by 2050. Western Europe, home to nearly 200 million people, witnessed a 14 percent decline in its overall birth rate in 2021.
China, the world’s most populous nation, reported they had 850,000 fewer people at the end of 2022 than the previous year, the biggest drop in 60 years. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy and a country that has long struggled with low birth rates, saw its number of registered births plummet to 799,728 last year – the lowest figure on record.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has warned that the country is “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions,” and has pledged to set up a new government agency in April to focus on the issue.
In Europe, governments have also scrambled to reverse declining birth rates. Sweden offers families a tax deduction for household services like cleaning and babysitting. In Hungary, young families are offered a loan they do not need to repay if they have a third child. Women who have four children are exempt from income taxes for life.
Poland’s government encourages couples to have more children by paying $125 per month per child to low-income families. Italy has halved taxes on baby and women’s health products and increased monthly payments for each child by 50% to $160. Ursula von der Leyen, the current President of the European Commission, introduced more generous childcare and parental leave policies while she was Germany’s family minister.
All of these reforms helped lift the fertility rate from 1.33 children per woman in 2007 to 1.49 in 2022. But fiscal incentives have not been sufficient to close the gap and bring Europe back to the replacement rate.
What Western governments seem to fail to understand – as evidenced by attempts to pay couples to have babies – is that children are not a financial asset or liability, but a divine gift.
This fundamental shift in how Western society views children can be traced directly to the secularization of the Western world. In ages past, people were perceived as made in the image of God in accordance with Judeo-Christian teachings. Rearing children was viewed as a sacred duty and joy.
19th-century German historian Arnold Hauser has argued that secularization began all the way back in the Renaissance following the rejection of the high view of the individual that pervaded the Middle Ages. Since then, the value of the human person has cheapened, culminating in the postmodern attitude that arose in the wake of World War II.
The decline of Christianity as a central pillar of Western life has gone hand in hand with declining birth rates. As the first phenomenon accelerated in the second half of the 20th century, so did the latter. American theologian Dr. Francis Schaeffer and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in the 1970s both described the social effect of secularism as a “culture of death.”
A retrospective view of the flow of modern leftist ideas underscores the point that it is culture, not financial incentives, that either encourages or discourages child-rearing. Behind the Iron Curtain, for instance, the teachings of Pope John Paul II helped create a culture that saw birth rates increase even in economically and politically dire conditions and with a broken healthcare system. The Pope emphasized that by carrying and giving birth to children, women are participating in God’s act of creation.
At the same time, birth rates fell elsewhere throughout the 1960s and 1970s, even as living conditions dramatically improved. Only in countries like Italy and Ireland, where many still adhere to a Judeo-Christian culture of life, did birth rates remain relatively high.
If the West is to reverse the current trend of population decline, it must first embrace a culture of life and uphold the inherent dignity of every human being. Until government policies are directed at this end rather than simply bribing couples to reproduce, the problem of falling birth rates will persist.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.