Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional US birth rate data for 2020. According to the report, the fertility rate was a nominal 1.64, which is the lowest fertility rate on record. That’s 4% lower than the birth rate in 2019, the previous record holding year. The number worries a lot of people, because a fertility rate of 1.64 (clearly) isn’t a replacement rate.
Not having a birth rate that at least replaces the existing population could be a problem. (Or not.) We’ve always assumed that it would be a problem, but because the US has only recently experienced a falling birth rate, we don’t actually know for sure.
A declining population may not end the world, but it does mean taking a different approach to the population we have. Making the most of the people we do have will become more important over time.
Investing in people is one way to make the most of our human resources. Investing in people means making sure that they have access to high-quality post-secondary education. Currently, women and minorities represent “unused capacity” in the economy. Simply equipping them with education and skills is not enough, though.
To convince women to re-enter the workforce, for example, they will need a laundry list of supports. These would include paid maternity leave, better tax treatments for parents, and high-quality childcare. It may also mean investing more heavily in education altogether. That investment may be comprehensive educational reform designed to improve the overall quality of education for all students.
Countering the birth rate decline with investment in people
Programs like Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect represent investments in the workforce. The Children’s Center offered the low-cost, high quality childcare that our community will need in the coming years. The WCC administration’s decision to close it represents a disinvestment in the workforce and a profound misunderstanding of our situation.
Diverting General Fund dollars to side projects like a hotel or convention center represents another disinvestment in the workforce. Converting college parking lots to retail space is another workforce disinvestment. Anything that takes away resources from the institutional mission to help people become more productive is a disinvestment.
We can solve the declining birth rate problem in one of three ways. One, we can encourage women to have more children, but that takes a long time. Two, we can encourage immigration to artificially inflate the population and meet labor demands. Three, we can invest more heavily in the population we have.
What we can’t do is switch our focus from education, or waste resources meant for the neediest in our communities. It means not assuming that recent high school graduates are the only students who matter. It means developing clever ways to entice people back into the classrooms, regardless of their age.
There’s a lot of work to do at community colleges in the coming years or decades. We need administrators with vision who are willing to see that it gets done.
Photo Credit: Ethan John , via Flickr