China’s Demographic Winter

Posted on Nov 3, 2015 in Wisconsin Family Connection Transcript


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2015 | Week of November 2 | #1122

I visited China for 10 days in 2001. In many ways, it was an international trip unlike any other I had ever taken. The differences between the US and China were stark, and frequently my mind was racing to try to assess it all.

I knew about the one-child policy and the government’s forced abortions dictate.  I had a friend who was living in China who had shared with me her experiences visiting orphanages where there were far more girl babies than boy babies, reflecting the very real situation that boy babies were and still are preferred. The one child policy required giving up girl babies if the family was determined to have a boy and did not want to have an abortion.

During that trip, I was repeatedly impressed with how much manual labor was done where in America the work would have been largely mechanized. For instance, the streets were swept daily but not with machines. Older people were out with brooms sweeping main streets in major cities. Where my friend lived, a construction project was underway. I was mesmerized watching the foundation of this large building being hand dug by hundreds of Chinese—most of them well over 40. It was obvious even 15 years ago, that China’s population was aging. I wondered then how even high-population country such as China would survive the one-child policy.

Now I know. China won’t survive with its government-imposed one-child policy. And now so does the Chinese government know which has backed away from this policy—now allowing couples to have two children. China has finally figured out that unless they have more young people in the demographic pipeline, in the not-so-distant future, there will be many more elderly Chinese than there are younger Chinese. This fact has serious economic and social repercussions. It’s a reality every nation and even individual states must deal with if they are to survive.  Every society must replace itself.

Demographers tell us that the average replacement birth rate is 2.1 babies per woman. That’s a replacement rate—not a growth rate.  China’s one-child policy went into effect in 1980. At that time, China had a birth rate of more than 2.7. Since 1990, that rate has consistently declined to a low of 1.5 and has settled around 1.7 in recent years.

Chinese leadership realized this is not economically sustainable, even in a Communist country, thus, the recent loosening of the one-child policy. But just as it has taken decades for the problem to reach this point, so it will take decades before China reaps much benefit from the policy change.

China’s not the only country in this situation. Many of the European countries, including largely Catholic countries such as Italy, have dangerously low birth rates. Several years ago, the Russian government was paying couples to have babies; and in late 2012, President Putin called on the Russian families to have three children in order to ensure Russia’s future in just about every way. The U.S. is right now around 2.0—and the trend is down, not up.

States aren’t exempt from this situation. Wisconsin’s birth rate has been at 1.9 for 40 years. This below-replacement-birth-rate is catching up to us, just as China’s has. Various groups have been saying of late that as the baby boomers retire, Wisconsin will have a dearth of workers. In 2000 we lost a congressional district because we didn’t have the requisite population. We have school districts struggling to maintain student populations. Being below replacement birth rate for 40 years is certainly at least part of the reason we’re experiencing these situations.

Think about just the economics of this for Wisconsin.  If we don’t have workers, we don’t produce goods. That may force businesses to leave the state. Workers pay taxes. Taxes are what keep the state government operating. The only reason Wisconsin is not in a worse situation right now is first, we currently have more people moving to our state than leaving including immigrants and second, people are living longer and are spending more of their senior years working.

Below replacement birth rates happen for a number of reasons including legalized abortion, widespread contraceptive use, falling marriage rates, the average age at which people marry increasing, and many couples deciding they don’t want more than one child or any children at all. Some of this can be addressed through policies; but much of it is cultural, meaning we need a seismic shift in the attitudes of people, and we need it soon. Make no mistake, demographic winters, like Wisconsin winters, are real and can be brutal.

This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the Prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

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