Wellington Andraus (AP)
"1937 — that was the last time the nation’s population growth was as low as it is today."

1937 — that was the last time the nation’s population growth was as low as it is today.

You should be concerned about this.

If you know anything about history or if, like me, you are old enough to have had parents or grandparents tell you what things were like, you know that 1937 was the year the second wave of the Great Depression hit.

In only a few months, the stock market fell dramatically, unemployment, which had inched down to 14 percent, jumped back to almost 20 percent, businesses felt uncertain and economic output dropped.

In her book, “The Forgotten Man,” Amity Shlaes said of this time, “The first crash (in 1929) had seemed like a nightmare; this crash felt like a life in the dark.” And in the background, disturbing tales of oppression and expansionism were beginning to emerge from Nazi Germany.

It’s easy to understand why the birthrate was low that year. It’s far more difficult to understand why it is low today. But unless we turn this trend around, the few children and grandchildren we are producing won’t have such a good life.

Census figures released a few days ago showed that not only has population growth slowed to a crawl, but the number of people under 18 has dropped since 2010.

The overall population grew by only 0.62 percent between 2017 and ’18. This follows a general downward trend over the last 35 or so years. The problem isn’t so much a decline in immigration. It is that Americans aren’t having babies.

As I’ve written before, experts are having trouble understanding why this is happening. A Gallup poll released last summer showed that 41 percent of Americans believe three or more children per family is ideal, which represented an increase from 38 percent in 2013 and 34 percent in 2011. Drill into those numbers and it turns out the increase was the greatest among the 18-34 age group, which is the very group that isn’t having children.

You may not notice much of this if you live in Utah. The Census Bureau found that nine states lost population during the past year, but the Mountain West states, for the most part, are still growing. Utah came in third with an increase of 1.9 percent, just behind Idaho and Nevada.

But even here, a place once known for babies, the fertility rate has dropped to 2.12 children per woman in 2017, just barely above the replacement level, generally believed to be 2.1, according to National Vital Statistics Reports.

And all this is happening amidst a peacetime (relatively speaking) economy with low unemployment and rising wages.

You don’t have to be a genius to see the questions that loom.

How can the nation hope to retire its burgeoning debt, now nearing $22 trillion, with a dwindling population, many of which are elderly people in need of Medicare?

How can Social Security keep up with payments to the elderly with a dwindling workforce? How can the military remain strong? How do we keep universities vibrant with ever-shrinking enrollments? How will the economy keep innovating when supply chains are disrupted and businesses close?

How will the nation meet its obligations and pay its debts?

Writing in the latest issue of The Ripon Forum, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said the national debt is “as great a challenge to our shared security and future opportunity as any armed opponent.”

“Like lead pipes left to fester in a local water utility, the problem is out of sight until one day when it becomes a catastrophe,” he said.

Which brings me to one startling difference between now and 1937. Franklin Roosevelt actually signed a balanced budget that year. Some economists say the nation would have been better off if he had agreed to run up a modest deficit. But there is nothing modest about today’s overspending amid prosperity.

Writing about this for the Brookings Institution, William H. Frey said we should take the Census figures as a warning of what needs to happen.

31 comments on this story

“In particular, it requires a more serious discussion of U.S. immigration policy because of the future contributions that immigrants will make to growing America’s society and economy,” he wrote.

Some demographers say the population won’t begin to decline noticeably until the last generation with a replacement birthrate has died off. That means we have time to reverse the trends — or at least to begin talking about them, which would be a giant step.

The alternative eventually could be far worse than anything 1937 had to offer.