by Chris Bertram on September 29, 2003

One of the claims that features in the “Legrain piece I mention below”: is that US-European comparative growth rates give a misleading picture of the relative health of the two economic zones because US population is growing fast (more mouths to feed from that greater output) whereas European population is static. Of course the low population growth in Europe can be looked at the other way: as evidence of Eurosclerosis and the harbinger of a massive pensions-and-health crisis. Now I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the differential demographics. After all, the career pressures are perhaps greater in the US, there’s probably less in the way of subsidized childcare, and access to birth control is similar in both areas. So having children is pretty much elective in both zones and the individual cost-benefit calcultation is probably more favourable to having children in Europe than the US. So I’d predict, if I were just coming at things _a priori_ , a lower birthrate in America than in Europe.

Obviously that’s not what’s happening. So why not? And who is having the kids? After all, the dynamic America/sclerotic Europe claims are usually made by looking at the aggregate statistics. But if middle-class, educated Europeans and middle-class, educated Americans are behaving similarly to one another, but the “excess” children in the US are all being born to impoverished single parents in trailer parks, the aggregate figures may be less favourable to the US. So how do the figures actually break down, by income group, immigrant/non-immigrant, and so on? I’ve no idea what the answer is, and my googling skills haven’t helped here: but maybe someone else does.



Ian 09.29.03 at 11:05 am

I’ve seen it suggested, but have no data, that in the UK it is first generation immigrants and their offspring in turn who have higher birth rates than the rest of the population. The problem with this sort of study is that it very easy for it to be a) misused b)misrepresented and c) misunderstood.

But it still needs doing.


Matthew 09.29.03 at 11:10 am

There’s been some suggestions that the cost of housing reduces fertility, through the fact that children continue have to live with their parents for longer, and so don’t want or can’t have children of their own (or perhaps don’t get the opportunity?). The classic example of this is Italian men, where it seems (this would need checking) 50% of men under 30 still live with their parents. Hence, if US housing is cheaper (which I presume it is) then this could be an explanation.

However one could easily argue the oppsite. Certainly in inner London I can think of couples I know who probably are living to together mainly because they couldn’t afford to live on their own, which I suppose could lead to more children…


Arnold Bocklin 09.29.03 at 12:24 pm

Most mammals respond to high population densities by reducing their birthrate — an instinctive (evolved) response to prevent the starvation and disease that high densities trigger. The lower European birth rate is probably just a response to the much higher population densities in Europe — Britain, for instance, is 0.5% the size of the US but has 20% of its population, a density 40 times as great.


m 09.29.03 at 12:46 pm

Please revise “America” or “the US” in this excerpted statement; easy to lose your point here: “So I’d predict, if I were just coming at things a priori , a lower birthrate in America than the US.”

[Thanks, I’ve fixed this – sloppy typing. C]


Matt McIrvin 09.29.03 at 2:04 pm

I’d always heard that it’s immigrants having the kids in the US as well. But it would be good to see a quantitative breakdown. Lower population density and a more religious population could also have an effect, but I’m guessing off the top of my head here.


Zizka 09.29.03 at 2:35 pm

I don’t think birth control is as available in the US as it is in Europe. For that and other reasons, the US is higher in some of the things that US conservatives most deplore: especially STD, teen births and abortions. I think that the US “just say no” approach to everything means that kids who aren’t completely obedient don’t have any prudent guidelines for their behavior at all. It’s sort of a cliche among sleazy guys that girls from a heavy religious background are among the easiest scores.


Ian 09.29.03 at 2:47 pm

Again without data to hand, the birth rate in Italy is one of the lowest in the developed world, which seems to suggest that the religious background doesn’t necessarily work as expected.

Zizka’s post has it spot on I think in relation to teenagers. The UK teenage pregnancy rate is one of the highest in Europe, probably for similar reasons to the US.


Ophelia Benson 09.29.03 at 2:59 pm

I’ve definitely heard and read many times (i.e. such that it seems to be common knowledge, but I don’t have statistics, though I should think a google of something like ‘demographic statistics US’ would get you a wealth of stuff from the US census department) that the birth rate is much higher among immigrants here (in the States).


William 09.29.03 at 2:59 pm

There was an article about this in the Economist last August — link is, but you need a subscription to read it. My recollection is that, as ian says, first-generation immigrants seem to have much larger families than other groups, and that America has many, many more first-generation immigrants, legal or illegal, than Europe does. I think the birth rate among non-recent immigrants is slightly higher in America than in Europe, too, but it’s hard to know how much this is because we’re seeing second-generation effects.


Mattthew 09.29.03 at 3:17 pm

Luckily I had a UN world population survey handy so here is what is says.

Interestingly the US birth rate was the lowest in its history last year at 13.9 per 1000 people (this includes all people). Yet in Europe, only one country was higher than this, Ireland, at 14.8, then France 12.9, Netherlands 12.5. At the other end Germany 8.8, Greece 9, Italy 9.6 were the lowest. The EU average was 10.6.

The consequence of this was that both the US and the EU had about 4mn births, but obviously given the EU’s population is much larger than the US’s (379 to about 289) the average is lower.

This is magnified because the same is not true of deaths — indeed Europe’s aging population meants it has proportionately more detahs (1% to 0.9%) Thus in 2002 there were 3.7m deaths in the EU comapared with 2.4m in the US.

Add in more immigration in the US and you get your rapidly rising population.

This does not answer, why? Looking at various immigrant rates they are on the whole higher, but US white fertility rate is higher too so there is probably a bit more too it.

This short paper backs up ‘it’s the housing market’ view.


Ophelia Benson 09.29.03 at 3:42 pm

US ‘white’ fertility rate? Wozzat? You mean non-immigrant? Or non-immigrant-white? Or what.

Anyway, is that true? I’m not sure, but it’s my impression that that’s not true – that the birth rate in the non-immigrant population is on the low side – comparable to Europe’s.

One factor of course is that a large percentage of our one million a year legal immigration and X more illegal comes from Mexico and points south, and is Catholic. High birth rates are a given.


brayden 09.29.03 at 3:51 pm

Gosta Esping-Andersen (a European sociologist) claims, in his book Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies, that the most valuable comparison of fertility rates is between European countries, which have similar levels of economic growth and population density. Among these countries, those that offer state-sponsored child and elderly care (i.e. Netherlands) have higher birth rates than countries sticking with traditional family policies (i.e. Italy). Moreover, countries with state-sponsored caregiving services also have higher employement rates. Esping-Andersen is obviously a supporter of strong welfare regimes and claims that these kinds of policies effectively combat Eurosclerosis, given that both high fertility rates and high employment positively affect economic expansion.

So the U.S. appears to be the exception to the overall pattern. I’m not sure I know exactly why, although I suspect it has less to do with immigrant populations than it does with the amount of wealth concentrated in the U.S. economy. The costs of providing child care are overcome by the relative prosperity of the middle-class in the U.S. compared to the middle-class in other countries. Immigrants arriving to the U.S. are likely given more economic opportunities in the U.S. than elsewhere, which positively affects their birth-rate.

However, it’s also possible that the U.S. is on the negative slope of economic expansion, yet citizens continue to behave as if the economy will expand indefinitely.


Ophelia Benson 09.29.03 at 5:32 pm

But statistically, the middle-class in the US has a low birth rate, and immigrants as a group have a high one. There is some overlap between those two groups, but not a lot. The whole point of our high level of immigration (this is a bit of a dirty secret) is cheap labor, which means that most immigrants are in fact not middle class and most of the middle class is not immigrants.


Andrew Boucher 09.29.03 at 8:15 pm

Probably the difference in immigration: first- and second-generation. But I don’t think it’s something to sneer about (“dirty secret”?). American society’s openness and its ability to assimilate chalk up as big pluses. European society can’t deal with the present number of immigrants – witness all the anti-immigration political parties. It’s either breed or die; and they’re having a hard time breeding.

Also some other commenter in the other thread mentioned the lack of kids in Europe favors the Old Continent in per capita G.D.P. comparisons Very true. You could say that the Europeans have fewer kids because they’re better off; or that they’re better off (now anyway!) because they have fewer kids.


Kristjan Wager 09.29.03 at 8:20 pm

Can anyone document that the US has more immigrants than the EU as a whole? It seems accepted as a basic fact among the comments, but I would like to see the numbers. Not that I don’t belive it, but as a general principle.


Matt Weiner 09.29.03 at 8:55 pm

Has anyone tried breaking things down in terms of religiosity? I’d expect that the US might have a more religious middle class than the EU, and that religiosity would correlate with family size–but I don’t know any numbers.


Pedant 09.29.03 at 9:16 pm

Not sure how Arnold is defining “Britain”, but the UK as a whole is more like 2.5% of the US’ land area, with a population density about 8.5 times as high, not 40 times as high. The basic point still holds, but the difference isn’t quite as dramatic …


Mark 09.29.03 at 9:21 pm
This is a paper [warning PDF format] that gives some explanation on declining birth rates. Of interest, the fact that the the US birth rate is driven up substantially by 1st generation immigrants (10% of population but 18% of births), and that the prime factors in driving down birth rates are economic prosperity and marriage at later age, which override even the strongest pronatal religious influences.


Chris K 09.29.03 at 10:07 pm

“Can anyone document that the US has more immigrants than the EU as a whole?”

Just a hint: Germany is more immigration friendly than the US in this graph.


Kristjan Wager 09.29.03 at 10:11 pm

Thanks chris, I’ll take a look on those numbers tomorrow, but a quick glance tells me that the difference can’t be that great, though the US probably has more immigrants per capita than the EU as a whole (in total numbers the EU might have more).


Barry 09.29.03 at 11:05 pm

One factor favouring fertility is belief in the future. Here in spite of setbacks the US is (and always has been) stronger than Europe, based on confidence in God or enterprise or both.


Ophelia Benson 09.30.03 at 12:25 am

The bit about dirty secret wasn’t a sneer at immigration per se, it was a sneer at the way people seldom or never put it in those terms, but rather approach it in a roundabout or sometimes euphemistic or other times downright dishonest way. Sorry, but I’m a great believer in bluntness.


northernLights 09.30.03 at 7:31 am

Check “Center on budget and policy priorities” and also EITC.

A lot of the data is given in terms of the poverty level. But I remember reading a statistic recently, sorry can’t remember where, about the percentage of children living in households that are eligible for the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit). While the higher end of eligibility is above the poverty level, nevertheless the government feels that that income level is in need of an income supplement if there are children in the household.

I’ve thought about that issue too because it may be “sclerotic” for us in US also, to have to have 2.5 workers to produce the earning power of 1 European if our children can’t afford a decent education to get ahead.


Doug Muir 09.30.03 at 9:52 am

Chris’ original question doesn’t seem to have been answered, though. Who’s having all those extra American kids?

We’re getting a lot of anecdotal “seems to me” discussion, but that’s — sorry — pretty worthless. Also some nice cites, but they don’t seem to be answering the question that was asked. Yeah, first-generation immigrants are having more kids, but they’re a fairly small (~10%) part of the population, and lowering their birthrates to match the national average still leaves the US with a rate well above the European average.

Can’t anyone come up with, say, a birthrate-income curve for the US? Surely there ought to be a way to get the data out of

Doug M. — Irish/American, married to a German, father of two


Doug Muir 09.30.03 at 10:09 am

Couple of other points:

— There’s little correlation, either positive or negative, between population density and birthrate.

— The Netherlands have historically had a slightly higher birthrate than the European average.

The Dutch population increased from about 2 million in 1800 to about 16 million today. That’s an eightfold increase; but over the same period, the population of most of the rest of western Europe “only” quadrupled. In 1800 Britain had about six times as many people as the Netherlands (~11 million) while France had about 15 times as many (~30 million). Today both Britain and France have about 60 million people, only about 3.8 times as many as the 16 million Dutch.

Point here being, relatively higher Dutch birthrates are not a new phenomenon. They date back to the 19th century, if not farther, and comfortably predate the origin of the welfare state.

I’m wondering if Esping-Anderson took that into account.


Matthew 09.30.03 at 10:42 am

This basically answers those questions

I didn’t read it all but it seems that Hispanic women have more children, but that isn’t really enough to make the oveall figures that much higher. Income doesn’t seem to play much of a role (but I only skimmed this bit).

A quote i saw from a demographer went like this

, “”The U.S. is the most fertile of developed nations,” he said, just above the replacement rate of 2.0, to replace two parents. He discounts ethnicity as the major cause.

“Even if you tried to match European-Americans with their country of origins, fertility would be higher than in Europe,” he said. “New wealth doesn’t explain it. My pet theory — and you can’t prove this — is that it has to do with greater religiosity than in Europe or Japan.”


Matthew 09.30.03 at 10:43 am

The Economist article about this is available online


Chris 09.30.03 at 10:57 am

Matthew, I don’t see how the “greater religiosity” hypothesis is consistent with what is said in the Economist article. The Economist says:

bq. Between 1960 and 1985, the American fertility rate had fallen faster than Europe’s, to 1.8, slightly below European levels and far below the “replacement level” of 2.1

Did the US become less religious than Europe during those years only to bounce back after 1980?


Robert Schwartz 09.30.03 at 2:35 pm

” the “excess” children in the US are all being born to impoverished single parents in trailer park”

I bet they grow up to become gun-loving republicans. What a disaster. No sterotyping here.

Here is the real story. the EU and the US flipped a coin to see who would get the arabs and the mexicans. The US won and chose the mexicans. We win.


Matthew 09.30.03 at 3:47 pm

Oh sorry I don’t know if you saw that was a quote from a demographer, not me. And one I didn’t actually mean to include after the ‘he said’. I don’t buy the religous argument myself.

Perhaps it’s to do with pensions. Germany has a generous state pension scheme so people don’t feel they need children to look after them….


Katie 10.01.03 at 5:04 am

Hello, all. I’m a demographer. Don’t know that it’ll help all that much with this discussion, since we (demographers) don’t really have an adequate explanation for differences in fertility rates between the U.S. and Europe, either…

But at least I can fill in some numbers for the discussion. Data from 2001 (from the National Vital Statistics Reports) show the following Total Fertility Rates (# of kids a woman would be expected to have in her lifetime if current rates prevailed throughout her childbearing years–this is a better measure for these comparisons than the crude birth rates some of you were using earlier, because it is not affected by differing age distributions of the populations you’re comparing)…

TFR for all in U.S.: 2.034
for non-Hispanic whites: 1.843
for non-Hispanic blacks: 2.104
for all Hispanics: 2.748
(broken down, Mexican origin: 2.928, Puerto Rican origin: 2.165)

The basic point is that even among non-Hispanic whites in the United States, TFR is a bit higher than in Europe (for the most part).

Some European TFRs from 2003 World Pop. Data Sheet:
Italy 1.2
Ireland 2.0 (higher!)
U.K. 1.6
Denmark 1.7
Sweden 1.6

The argument that it has something to do with religiosity among Americans is not totally off the wall, and neither are the arguments about population density. A lot of the evidence for the historical declines in fertility that brought us from high/”natural” fertility to these below-replacement levels suggests that it had at least as much, if not more, to do with culture and ideas and social networks as it did to do with economics.


Ben 10.01.03 at 10:30 am

Chris K – does the Germany migration figure include gastarbeiter (guest workers)? It might account for the higher migration figure if it does.


Katie 10.01.03 at 3:30 pm

One other quick point–on the issue of access to birth control. We (in the US) have higher teen births than they do in Europe, even though, for the most part, teens start having sex at about the same age both places. Access to contraception is an issue for teens here.


Lawrence Krubner 10.03.03 at 5:10 am

Did the US become less religious than Europe during those years only to bounce back after 1980?

The religious revival that started in the 1970s has been quite marked. I live in a country in which 96% of the population says it believes in God, which, I’ve read, is about the highest percent in the world. One historian argues that America is now undergoing its fourth Great Awakening. It’s worth noting that the best selling fiction in America during the 1990s were the Left Behind books. Are these the kinds of books that would sell in Europe?

As to immigration in Europe and America, I read in the Economist that both “countries” have received about the same absolute number of immigrants during the last 20 years, but that this would represent a greater percent increase for America.

My own feeling is that America has a higher birth-rate than Europe because it is more religous. Eve Tushnet typifies the trend when she says that the whole point of leading a self-conquered life is to make yourself more able to raise more children.

More so, most of my liberal friends are religious. It is not merely the political right that is religous. Most of my liberal college educated friends who hate George Bush are quite religous. It is a universal experience in America to be religous.


cody j. 10.21.03 at 3:28 am

religion is definately influential on fertility rates. In the US, white, non-hispanic fertility rates are running about 1.7 – 1.9. Contrast that with the white, non-hispanic fertility rate in the state of Utah – about 2.3. This correlates with the high number of orthodox Mormons in the state. One would expect to find a similar correlation in the “Bible Belt” (southern US). However, white, non-hispanic fertility rates in states such as Alabama (1.9) do not bear this out. Curious.

I’ve seen postings citing the US white fertility rate at 2.1, but this is a little misleading. “White”, as the US Census defines it, includes millions of latino immigrants. When comparing/contrasting the “white population” in Europe and the US, you must keep in mind that the US Census does not consider “hispanic/latino” as a separate race. For Census purposes, “hispanic” refers to the ethnic background of any race (white/black). So, to fairly compare/contrast white populations between Europe and US, one must be specific as to non-hispanic whites.

IMHO, I believe the falling fertility rates among any race in the US or Europe, but especially among white, non-hispanics is a function of secularism, individualism, wealth and accompanying leisure, and a sense of secuity/dependence on the state. Contraceptives/abortion allows people the means to maintain their wealth and leisure time – something (actually, one of the only things) a secular person can look forward to in life. The “god” of Self.

Comments on this entry are closed.