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America's Baby Boom Is a Bust

June 19, 1987|BILL STEIGERWALD

Babies certainly are fashionable these days. America's malls and living-room rugs seem to be crawling with them. So how can it be that U.S. News & World Report this week is declaring babies a virtual endangered species?

Well, in the long run, America is not having enough babies, Ben Wattenberg says in an excerpt from his upcoming but already controversial book, "The Birth Dearth." Demographer Wattenberg--usually an inveterate optimist and joyful debunker of such doomsdayish notions that the world is running out of resources--lays out what he admits is his "alarmist tract": The entire free, modern, industrial Western World is headed toward great economic and social turbulence because its fertility rate has fallen so low it can no longer replace itself.

Graying of America

As America slowly slides toward its projected rendezvous with minus-population growth, Wattenberg says, its population will become increasingly older, less innovative, less consumptive, less productive and more culturally and racially troubled as the "white European" stock falls below 50%.

Our standard of living will decline and Social Security is doomed to go broke, he says, because down the road Baby Busters will no longer be able to support all those retired Baby Boomers. Overseas, the U.S. will lose its cultural potency and its military and political influence to faster-growing totalitarians and Third World nations. And the West's values of freedom and democracy may not be able to continue dominating the globe when its population falls to a projected 9% of the world's total by 2030 (down from 22% in 1950).

Wattenberg's solutions? Forget immigration. Forget government coercion. Mount a public education campaign to warn about all these dire future manifestations of a no-growth or shrinking population. He wants more babies and he wants businesses to take the lead in making it easier for women to work and have kids too by offering on-site day care and better maternity benefits. Mothers at home with several kids should get money, he says. At least $2,000 per year per baby, paid for out of the Social Security Trust Fund, which will ultimately be replenished when the bumper crop of babies hits the job place.

Most of all, he says, he wants today's self-oriented young people to be re-enspirited--"to understand and take pride in the fact that they are a part of a remarkable, potent, productive, humane, beneficent culture"--and preserve Western civilization by having a baby or three. In an accompanying article, Wattenberg's arguments are challenged. Critics say that his projections are statistically flawed and his conclusions too sweeping. It's a debate that is sure to be with us for a while.

Meanwhile, Time says, all those babies we see nowadays are the cause of our latest national crisis--too many kids need day care. Sixty percent of mothers with children under 14 are now in the labor force. But child care is scarce, expensive and often of poor quality. Plus at least one major psychological study shows that "extensive day care in the first year of life raises the risk of emotional problems."

As solutions to the child-care crisis, politicians are talking up voucher systems, subsidies and comprehensive state-supported day-care systems. But federal deficits mean the private sector may have to carry most of the load, Time says. Though only 3,000 of the country's 6 million employers offer child-care assistance, more companies are seeing that it's a cost-effective benefit that pays off by reducing turnover and lowering absenteeism. Which must please Wattenberg.

There Oughta Be a Law

If you could add one amendment to the Constitution, the New Republic recently asked some distinguished pundits and politicos, what would it be?

Among the 39 responses printed, Nation editor Victor Navasky would make capital punishment unconstitutional. National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr. would strike down the progressive income tax by forbidding unequal treatment of income by law. Eugene McCarthy would repeal the 25th Amendment (on presidential succession) and abolish the office of vice president.

George McGovern would repeal the 22nd Amendment that restricts Presidents to two terms. Norman Lear would remove the provision of Article V that allows amendments to the Constitution to be proposed by calling a constitutional convention and--no doubt speaking on behalf of Americans everywhere--a Robert L. Cohen of New York proposed that "the designated-hitter rule shall not be allowed in professional baseball at any level in the United States."

Pixelated Photos

American Photographer, dare we say, focuses on the problems generated in photography by the new technology of digital-image processing, a super-sophisticated computer graphics process that allows a photograph to be broken down into thousands of binary encoded impulses called "picture elements," or "pixels."

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